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Margie Orford

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Archive for the ‘crime’ Category

Daddy’s Girl Makes Women24′s Top Ten of 2009 (Plus: Interview)

I was very glad to find that Daddy’s Girl made Women24′s 2009 top ten reads list – alongside the likes of Stieg Larsson, no less. Take a look:

Meanwhile, here’s a quick interview between myself and Sam Wilson, involving my top five crime writing tips:

1. Do your research
There are two main types of crime fiction:
i. ‘Body in the library’ Conan Doyle style, favoured by writers such as Ruth Rendell, Ian Rankin and PD James, and
ii. ‘Hardboiled’ hyper-real, ‘Uneasy Street’ crime fiction, as favoured by Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane

If you’re going to fall in between the two (like Orford herself), do it consciously.

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My Interview with Sue Grant-Marshall in The Weekender

After the demise of The Weekender, here’s a resurrection of its final book interview, between Sue Grant-Marshall and myself:

MARGIE Orford, queen of South African crime thrillers, has cracked it.

Her third book in the Clare Hart series, Daddy’s Girl, has delivered the “ball-crushing fear: she aims for. It’s what her readers have come to expect.

This novel is the most gut- wrenching of the series and she believes the third one establishes her as a professional writer. Michael Connelly, the acclaimed thriller writer, says it takes 10 books before you truly arrive, but Orford’s short-circuiting that .

Like Clockwork, her first thriller, sold 85000 copies in six months in Germany. She’s been translated into seven languages and is selling in nine countries.

“I’m frightening people all over the place,” she says with her quick wit and melodious laugh. Her nervous tension has been palpable for months as she anguished over the reception of Daddy’s Girl, so at last she can relax.

This generator of heart-attack heat turns up for an interview in cool white on a summer’s day . She’s celebrating, but already talking about her fourth book, The Quarry, and even her fifth, Water Music. Her lightness and brightness are a foil for the grim and grisly underworld of the notorious prison numbers gangs that feature large in Daddy’s Girl.

Graveyard de Wet, imprisoned with a triple life sentence for disembowelling a nine-year-old girl, her mother and her grandmother, makes an appearance.

Orford sets the scene: “Ex- prisoner. He cut through farmland, a shadow slipping down the serried vines. A woman making her way home stopped, uncertain. The man watched her, at ease. Prison erases a man’s smell, teaches him the art of absence.”

Captain Riedwaan Faizal, a member of Cape Town’s elite Gang Unit, strides onto the scene. Tough and streetwise, he’s used to being a target. But when his war against gangs sucks in his only daughter and he becomes the prime suspect in her abduction – “yes, there’s a history” – he is as powerless as a whale out of water. He turns to Dr Clare Hart, investigative journalist turned profiler. Her primary interest is helping women and girls who are figuratively disembowelled by SA’s misogynistic society.

She’s initially sceptical of Faizal, whose unorthodox and freethinking approach to crime- solving has landed him in trouble many a time. But Hart knows only too well what happens when little girls are abducted and against her better judgment she agrees to help him look for nine-year-old Yasmin. The search takes readers into some of Cape Town’s seedy backwaters, into prisons, nightclubs and the detritus of a port city .

In the background is a ticking clock as the vital early hours after an abduction slither by and death becomes more certain.

ORFORD cleverly slips us into the mind of the little girl: “She wants her father. He will find her, save her from the darkness she’s so afraid of. He promised. She breathes in, like her daddy said he does when he’s afraid. The thud of blood in her ears fades, and she can listen.”

Yasmin is written with dead- cert authenticity. Orford and her architect husband have three daughters. She sticks to what she knows and painstakingly researches what she does not. “How would I know, sitting in my kitchen in Oranjezicht, how a cop reacts to a certain situation?”

So Orford goes out on patrol with the police, with her sharp mind, and even sharper pencil, missing nothing.

“How would a pathologist react to a particular kind of corpse?” She goes to mortuaries, observes every detail, watches a pathologist tuck a wisp of hair behind her ears as she prepares to cut. “For me it’s those tiny details of behaviour that become a portal into creating a character,” Orford says.

“What would you do if your child was missing? We all know the feeling when your kid disappears in a supermarket – I want to take that moment and make it go on and on and on.” She succeeds.

Daddy’s Girl germinated in her mind over two weeks many years ago when 10 young girls were murdered on the Cape Peninsula. There was no serial killer, no psycho to catch. “The serial killer is our society that just picks off vulnerable little people,” she says.

You sense, rather than hear, the rage in Orford’s voice as she questions the malfunctioning of society. Small girls, “so symbolic of the future with tiny ovaries intact, the most vulnerable of us, are not protected. It’s as if we have a death wish. “Daddy’s Girl is about fatherhood and how it must feel to be a good man in our sick and misogynistic society.”

THE third book in the series – following Like Clockwork and Blood Rose – is a prequel. It can be read first. “I painted myself into a corner with (publisher) Oshun by telling them I had a fully worked-out series but it was a total lie. I just jumped into the deep end with Clockwork.”

In the first thriller Hart, who reads criminal minds intuitively, has a sizzling relationship with the hunky, but at times difficult, Faizal. This continues in the second novel . Yet they meet for the first time in Daddy’s Girl, explaining the absence of sex until almost the last page – and Orford does sex particularly sensuously.

“I promise in the next one there will be sex from page two. The first page, as we know in a crime thriller, always has to have a body.”

Blood Rose opens with the corpse of a boy slumped in a swing on a Namibian school playground, turning in the wind. The film rights to it have been sold to London-based South African team Malcolm Kohll and Robert Fig .

The Quarry, about a stalker, is located in Cape Town and Amsterdam. “I always set my books in ports and, no Joburgers, Bruma Lake is not a port,” she says.

The central character is Sophie Brown, beautiful, seductive, haunted and working on an exhibition . The quarry is where Sophie witnessed, at the age of four, her mother being killed – but she’s forgotten how to remember the trauma. In preparing for the exhibition she discovers the crime scene that has shaped her life.

Orford approached “crime artist” Kathryn Smith, a Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year whose serial exhibitions return to the uncanny remains of crime scenes, and asked her to bring Sophie to life. Orford says today Sophie, stalked and hunted by Smith, is now stalking them.

Water Music takes place in New York where the British-born, Namibian-raised and South African-educated Orford lived with her family for years. She sends a South African girl on a scholarship there and when she goes missing her parents ask Hart to fly to New York and find her.

Orford found the city fascinating. “It’s the same age as Cape Town. Maybe I could live there now that they’re just like us with Nobel Prize-winning politicians.”

Maybe one day Orford will be too famous to live here. But SA is spoilt for richness, with an over-abundance of homegrown crime.

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The State of South African Crime Fiction

Raymond Chandler wrote in The Simple Art of Murder that “the detective story for a variety of reasons can seldom be promoted. It is usually about murder and hence lacks the element of uplift. Murder … has a good deal of sociological implication. But it has been going on too long for it to be news.”

South Africa, apart from the odd kvetch from Colombia, is the undisputed murder capital of the world, so real-life murders, like most crimes, are hardly newsworthy. But the fictional crime spree in local fiction is hitting the news.

Southern African crime fiction ranges from Alexander McCall Smith’s genteel Number One Ladies Detective Agency series to Roger Smith’s hard-core noir-crime where the plot (think Mixed Blood) is so tight that there is no space to breathe. There are the police procedurals such as Andrew Brown’s award-winning Coldsleep Lullaby and the cop duo in Richard Kunzman’s trilogy. Jassy MacKenzie’s skill as a gore-meister and chronicler of the meanest streets of Johannesburg is back with My Brother’s Keeper.

Cape Town has produced quite a crop of crime writers. There is the now divorced writing duo of Mike Nicol and Joanne Hichens whose PIs, in Out to Score, took on Cape Flats gangsters, perlemoen poachers, drugs and gun running. Since the split, Nicol has produced Payback, as brutal and mercenary a tale of gunrunning and extortion as you could hope to find.

Deon Meyer, the godfather of local crime fiction, is a warm-hearted writer who takes on broad moral issues: vigilantes in Devil’s Peak and the spectres of our military past in Blood Safari. His heroes are cops, PIs and ex-soldiers and he writes in the best crime tradition of the flawed hero who might not do the legal thing but who always does the right thing.

My own series (Like Clockwork, Blood Rose, Daddy’s Girl) is anchored in Cape Town with my forensic profiler, Clare Hart, concerned, as many women are in the Mother City, with sexual violence, human trafficking, gangs, the drug trade, revenge and finding an available straight man.

South African crime fiction, like American, British or Scandinavian crime fiction, is developing a powerful sense of place but it has not been the easiest sell as many book buyers are resistant to the notion that local might be lekker. Here we are in very good company. Mike Nicol on quotes the Irish crime writer, Declan Burke, lamenting that Irish readers also ignore the homegrown product. Burke called it an inferiority complex. So, should one call this spate of novels thrillers or crime fiction or noir or what?

“I’ve got problems with dividing fiction into subgenres,” says Mervyn Sloman, owner of the independent Cape Town bookshop, The Book Lounge. “Whatever genre names one comes up with are divided by rather hazy lines. I don’t like talking about ‘crime fiction’ because I don’t know what fits into it and what doesn’t. Was John Coetzee’s Disgrace crime fiction? If Margaret Atwood’s next novel concerns a murder, are we going to put it in crime fiction? If you walk into my shop and say you’re looking for a detective story, or a crime/thriller/whodunit, we’ll match you with something that you’ll enjoy without having to have a separate shelf of books specially marked to assist us.

Chandler said “the murder novel has a depressing way of minding its own business, solving its own problems and answering its own questions”. For this reason, crime fiction gets some critics on to their literary high horses, but it sells. Why?

“Waiting in the queue [car licence] at the appropriately named Gallows Hill,” one reader, a recent convert to crime, emailed me: “I read another 80 pages of Daddy’s Girl and the time just flew. All I want to know is what happens next.”

“Reading crime is cheap bungee-jumping,” another crime fan said.

Crime fiction sells because who can trust the literary novel since postmodernism. You never know if the author will finish the story or if he or she will suddenly infest the book you are reading with an army of footnotes and forget the plot.

You have no such fear with the crime novelist. The average crime novelist will give you what you paid for — plot, character, action, resolution, some good sex. Good crime writers will give you a lot more.

Patrick Anderson writes in the Washington Post that “Deon Meyer’s novels explore the complex reality of South Africa … At the most obvious level, they are exciting stories of crime, conflict, revenge, but they are more than that: ambitious attempts to show us the pain and greatness of a troubled nation that is still being born.”

So, give plot a chance.

“The days are well and truly over when people bought literature because it originates in South Africa,” cautions Rebecca Servadio of London-based Koukla MacLehose Book Scouts. “Now the only thing that matters is that it is good and that it is sellable.” That said, South African crime is selling internationally. As Meyer asks: “Why wouldn’t our crime fiction do well overseas?” He has just hit the 20-language mark. Roger Smith has been sold in the United States, the United Kingdom and will soon be lost in translation in Japan. Mike Nicol has been sold in the US and the UK. Joanne Hichens has been sold in the US. Jassy MacKenzie has been sold to the Germans, as has Andrew Brown’s Coldsleep Lullaby. My own Clare Hart series is in nine languages and counting.

“I don’t believe that South African crime fiction is developed enough yet to have become a brand in the way Scandinavian crime writing has, or Irish or Tartan Noir are threatening to become,” says Roger Smith. “I got a publishing deal in the States in pretty much the way any American writer would: because they liked my work and thought it was commercial. The fact that my books are set in South Africa is of some interest, but genre considerations outweigh geographical ones.”

This article originally appeared in the Mail & Guardian

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