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Margie Orford

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Archive for the ‘crime’ Category

Quick-fire Questions from Crime Always Pays

Declan Burke from Crime Always Pays recently fired a few quick questions at me. In the following interview I reveal, among other things, the pitch for my next book:

What crime novel would you most like to have written?

WOLVES EAT DOGS by Martin Cruz Smith.

What fictional character would you most like to have been?

Arkady Renko (goes with the above). But some days I feel more like Cruella deVille. I never want to be Bambi’s mother.


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The difficulty of dressing your heroine in a crime novel

Crime fiction is a genre that teems with heterosexual men and uninhibited women so breasts, like long legs, do feature. I was blessed with the former, but not with the latter, but no matter. I have learned to rise to the sartorial challenge that short legs pose. Breasts are more complicated things though. Three friends have recently been diagnosed with breast cancer. Each one has shouldered the burden of recovery with stoicism and grace.

This is why I am here in a dimly lit room filled with odd-looking machinery. I am wearing a hospital gown that covers little, but there is a pile of fashion magazines on the table so I pick one up. I think again of Mark Twain’s assertion about naked people having little or no influence on society. This is true. Nakedness is something that must be covered up.

My book is done, book tours loom. I must buy some frocks. They are an essential part of this writer’s recovery programme so I phone Cheryl Arthur of Hip Hop Clothing and say ‘please, dress me again.’ I worked for her twenty years ago and she is someone who knows how to make a woman look fabulous. Nipped in waist, full skirts, all very Mad Men. So one phone call later and my future is all frocked up.

But here I am still, waiting for the radiographer. I think about being nearly naked in a public building and how docile it makes one. I think about fashion and crime. Clothing is crucial in crime fiction and it has given me a lot of trouble in my writing career. Dressing in crime fiction is utilitarian and ostensibly peripheral, like all that takeaway food that is consumed in such vast quantities in the genre. Despite the fact that so many women read crime, it remains a masculine genre and much of the action takes place in the public domain where clothes and shoes do cover the men. But men rarely need to about what to wear.


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Materialism is Fuelling New Wave of Riots

I have been nit picking my way through page proofs for my new book, a task that makes sticking pins into one’s eyes seem fun. Be that as it may, a pivotal scene that recaptured my attention is a riot. Riots, I discovered during the writing, are hard things to construct. They appear to erupt suddenly and without warning. The riot itself is chaotic, adrenalin-pumped and terrifying, there is no centre to it, and there is no form. Riots leave one dazed, confused and, all too often, ashamed of how one behaved during the event. But riots, like all storms, do not come out of nowhere.

Thanks to the British riots I have my favourite punk band, The Clash, doing a permanent rerun in my head; ‘London Calling’, ‘Police and Thieves’, all those great anthems to anarchy composed in the late 1970s, when Mrs Thatcher school-marmed her way into power. She presided over some exemplary strikes and riots that changed British society forever.

When I lived in London in the late 1980s there were the Poll Tax riots. London surged with East End impis armed with dustbin lids and bricks. There was the standard standoff with the cops, a couple of people were clobbered then everyone went home and had cups of tea. Oh yes, and the Thatcher’s poll tax, a very unfair one, was scrapped.

In the late 1990s there were riots against global capitalism. Again, dustbin lids, bricks, Bobbies, beatings; then it was done, order was restored and it was back to business as usual. Global capitalism seems to have done itself in over the last decade, but who knows, maybe it needed that helping hand with a half-brick.


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The Connection Between Illegitmate Social Hierarchy and Violence

Two months ago a woman I have known all my life was hacked to death in her garden. Ann was seventy-two, a retired schoolteacher. A gentle woman with a soft, enveloping body. She was a mother, and a grandmother. My father was best man at their wedding.

They spent every Christmas with us on the farm, us children watching in delight as the adults got tipsy and told the same jokes and sang the same songs. Each year we exchanged gifts. I have some of them still. She was an invisible stitch in the fabric if my childhood.

This is how I picture it.

In the ritual of so many South African households, she would have taken a cup of tea and a sandwich out at mid-morning.

I ask some questions.

That day her husband went to work. He came home for lunch but no food was cooked. He went to look for her. He found her outside. She had been hacked to death. There was no sign of the gardener.

The police came. The house was searched. A firearm was missing. Two days later the gardener was arrested with the gun in his possession.

I ask some more questions. There is only this to tell. There had been words between the gardener and his employers.

I try to make sense of her death, to find an explanation for the brutal slaying of an old lady.

I have been in that garden.

The lawn is mowed, the edges trimmed, the dahlias staked, the white daisies bob in the summer breeze. It is neat, clipped, suburban, like countless others spread through the suburbs of South Africa.

On this day something tripped the fuse that runs through the dynamics of class and race and gender that hold South Africa in a deadly grip.

But what does it mean?

It is something that Randolph Roth, the author of a fascinating book called AMERICAN HOMICIDE, has addressed. He points out in his preface something that South Africans, citizens of one of the most murderous countries on earth, are all to familiar with.

‘The blunt truth,’ writes Roth, ‘is that homicide is hard to deter even under the best circumstances.’

His book presents analysis of the high homicide rates in the United States. It is, after all, statistically the most murderous of all the advanced democracies.


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The Ethics of Writing Crime Fiction in South Africa

South Africa, charming and vibrant as it might be, is a delinquent democracy in which the most outrageous crimes are committed, often with impunity. It is a murderous country where no one is unaffected by violence. It is a place where corruption is corroding hard-won democratic institutions. It is a place where ethics – collective and individual – are increasingly elastic.

So, I ask myself, is it ethical to write crime fiction, to fictionalise crime? What are the ethics of representation, especially the representation of violent and degrading experiences, in a place where everyone has them? I could not find a satisfactory answer, so I put this question to a professor of philosophy at the University of Cape Town.

He advised me to consider these two things.

First: That one would have to weigh up the value of public knowledge of things with an individual’s rights to privacy. A solution to this, he told me, would be that a story be told anonymously because once it is linked to an individual, it would be a further assault. This I do in all my books. I sink real people and real interactions deep below the surface of my fiction so that their lived experience is the pulse, the heartbeat of the stories, but the detail of their identities is not. It plagues me though that the murders, the rapes, the fear that one fictionalises are the lived experiences of so many people in South Africa.

Second: there is the necessity of truthfulness, of avoiding the hyperbolic, the sensational. This can be a vexing question for a novelist. Is my account truthful even if I have buried the originating detail? Does it reflect things accurately? Crime fiction is a popular genre – born out of the penny ‘orribles of the 19th Century – and many crime books are filled with the most pornographic violence.

Much of what I think of as ‘good’ crime fiction – well written and ethical – is not hyperbolic. It might be condensed, time might be speeded up a little, but it is not possible to create a good story without being truthful and accurate in the essence of interactions around traumatic events.

This is a challenge if you write about crime in South Africa. The reality is that most actual crime is far too hyperbolic, for too outrageously meaningless, far too sensational. The violence is excessive, too gratuitous to be turned into a good story. There is, in fact, little narrative behind most crime. It is just lots of drinking and fighting, shooting and hitting and stabbing and then people are dead and children are crying. And the cops come and roll their eyes and arrest a couple of people.

End of story.

No reason, no explanation, no gain.

Just loss and pain and no words to say it.

And that is not what crime fiction is about.

So, in life the ethics are messy, the crime fiction the aesthetics complex, but for Ian Rankin, creator of the fabulous Rebus series, that is a good place for a writer to be. He wrote that

‘What crime fiction needs is a sense of the incomplete, of life’s messy complexity. The reader should go to crime fiction to learn about the real world, not to retreat from it with comfortable reassurances and assumptions… Good does not always triumph in today’s crime fiction; evil cannot always be rationalised.’

It was life’s messy complexity that brought me to the subject matter of my last book. DADDY’S GIRL originated in a series of real events. In a two-week period in 2007, eight little girls were killed in Cape Town. Really little girls. The youngest was 18 months. The oldest one was six. I wanted to explore this feral society that picks off the weak and vulnerable.

This was the question that kept on coming at me as I clipped the stories of these deaths from the newspapers. What does it mean when the fathers turn on their (baby) daughters and kill them?

A Jungian formulation, I know, but what other kind of question is there to ask? What should one say when a patriarchal society is stripped to its malignant bones and kills its own children? In the Greek myth of origins, Cronos eats his grown sons.


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Writers Gifts: The Flexibility of Crime Fiction and The Trope of Femininity and Death

Shortly after the publication of BLOOD ROSE, my second Clare Hart thriller, a relative of mine asked when I was going to write a ‘proper’ book. This is a fair question. Murder, rape, organised crime, collapsing state institutions, street gangsters, pathology labs, broken hearts and a couple of quickies along the way are not, as Raymond Chandler pointed out in his famous essay, the Art of Murder, proper. I assured my disapproving relative that I had started out trying to write a ‘proper’ book. I had outlined a very literary book that involved (of course) a farm. All books by literary South Africans seem to involve farms with frustrated women immured on them.

But it was a bird without wings and it did not fly. I wanted to write about Cape Town, the cruel and beautiful city I live in. I wanted to write about dislocation and violence, about the survival of love and hope. I wanted to write about South Africa as it is. Urban, fractious, shifting, uncontained. I had no interest in writing about how it was meant to be.

I returned to Cape Town with my family in 2001. I had left South Africa in 1988 when the country was in the throes of an unacknowledged civil war. I went to live in London, then that peaceful backwater, Namibia and finally New York.

~ ~ ~

My first book, Like Clockwork, was born out of a series of images that I collected through my interviews with South African cops and forensics experts. Here is one that has stayed with me.

Imagine a cold Monday morning.

A drying rack that looked like a deli fridge in the medical forensic labs in Valhalla Park on the Cape Flats. Inside were panties. Big, small, expensive, washed over and over, Woolworth’s beige, a lovely wisp of bloodied lace. And one tiny red pair from Pep Stores. It had a label: age 2 – 3. And one unravelling thread that floated above it. I asked a cop who was showing me around what this was and he shrugged.

‘That’s Cape Town on a Monday morning. Those are the rape cases.’

The writer’s gift: the small detail that evokes the whole. It provoked in me a sense of deep moral outrage: somehow I had to find a way of restoring those panties to their owners, of finding the intimate pulse of their lives, of making them back into human beings again. Not these pared down metonymies of degradation and pain.


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Anni Dewani and the Grammar of Violence

Late last year a beautiful young woman called Anni Dewani visited South Africa. She was here with her new husband, bride and bridegroom on honeymoon. They did the classic tourist triangle. Jo’burg. Kruger Park for the big five, then Cape Town for wine and sea and sun and good food.

But on the 13th of November, a Saturday night, the taxi she and her husband were travelling in was hijacked. The taxi-driver and the husband were forced out of the car, they claimed.

The hijackers –there were two, maybe three, it was unclear – abducted the lovely bride.

The husband, distraught, knocked on one door and then another. Eventually someone opened up. The cops were called. They arrived.

They searched for the VW Sharan.

It was daybreak before she was found. Shot dead. The bullet fired at close range into the back of her slender neck.

The husband appeared in the press, distraught.

Another victim of the horrifyingly random violence of South Africa.

And yet…and yet.

I watch this grief stricken man and I think no. This is not making sense. This is not adding up. Because the body – poor dead lovely bridal Anni’s body is found in the car. On the back seat. There’s blood all over the show.


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UK Cover for Daddy’s Girl

My new UK cover…I rather like it. It will be out early in the new year under Atlantic’s new imprint, CORVUS.


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Moscow to Jozi via Lyon and the Quais du Polar Crime Writing Festival

April is the month for Lyon’s annual Quais du Polar festival, an international literary festival dedicated to crime fiction. It has drawn some very big names — Ian Rankin, Michael Connelly, Peter Robinson and South Africa’s own favourite French export, Deon Meyer. I cracked the nod this year and spent a fabulous few days drinking Côte du Rhône wine, eating the best food in France and hanging out with some of my fellow practitioners of the art of literary murder.

Lyon is a fast, two-hour train ride from Paris, but it seems further away. France’s second-largest city is more languid than the capital. It was founded by the Romans to enable them to keep the Gauls (think Asterix and Obelix) in check. It is a lovely city to walk in. The rivers Rhône and Saône snake their way through the medieval quarter on their way to the Mediterranean. At night there is a rather theatrical undercurrent of thuggishness on the streets too. Knots of strung-out teenagers on park benches, Kojak-bald sailors with thick gold earrings watching the girls go by, sharp looking mafioso in the corners of the cafés. Marseilles, that hub of European crime is, after all, just an hour or so away. And Marseilles featured quite prominently in the French novels on display at the Quais du Polar.

Polar is the rather charming French name for crime fiction. I like the chilliness implied as much as I liked the darkness of its other appellation, noir fiction. Both are rather more glamorous than the German diminutive, krimi. And sidestep the Anglo-America confusion about crime/thriller/mystery and so on. Whatever you call it, the genre is very popular in France and I watched French authors autographing books at high speed.

French publishers sensibly trap their authors in small booths, and I was placed next to an obsessive, tattooed Icelandic fisherman-turned-polar-writer. He kept a careful note in a little black book of each and every book he signed: name of the person, description, place. He would flip back and forth between signing lulls, comparing the number of fans here with the number of fans elsewhere and muttering in Icelandic French to his publicist. It gave me the chilling little kernel for a new story. The noir writer with a very sharp fishing knife who follows up on his better-looking female readers …

  • More at the Mail & Guardian

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Nice Blood Rose review in today’s Independent

Blood RoseBLOOD ROSE, published by Atlantic in the UK, is out in the UK this month. Here, following a carrot in the The Times a couple of weeks ago, is a review in The Independent. This was the bit I liked: There is a highly satisfying marriage here between keen desire for a better society and the no-nonsense imperatives of the best crime fiction: an edgy union that Orford presides over with great dexterity.

However, such books as Blood Rose are not given over to impassioned ideological arguments. Orford is canny enough to know that her principal duty is to engage the reader. This second outing in her Clare Harte series once again features her streetwise investigative journalist with a PhD in femicide and sexual murder. Clare has an on/off relationship with a good-looking captain in the South African police, Riedwaan Faizal, who uses her as a profiler on difficult cases.

Book details


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