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Margie Orford

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Meeting up with the Boozy, Bloodthirsty Sisters of Crime Fiction in Melbourne

Australia does exist. Every single South African was rudely reminded of that fact last Sunday when the Springboks were pipped (criminally) to the post by the Australians in the rugby world cup. I was forced to watch the slaughter of dreams from a bar in Melbourne. It did not inspire the most neighbourly thoughts in me, I have to confess.

The reason for this sporting torture is that I’ve been at SheKilda in Melbourne, a crime writers’ festival hosted by the Sisters in Crime, a bloodthirsty group of Australian women who seem to have an infinite capacity for gore, alcohol and crime fiction.

The endless flight to this remote part of the globe has introduced me to a whole new world. Australia, like Sweden and Norway, is an astoundingly law abiding country by my rather jaded standards. Drivers wear their seatbelts, the stop at red lights, and they don’t seem to kill each other all that much. There was a mini-spate of mob killings in Melbourne recently, but that seems more like a service to humanity than a crime. And a great saving for the taxpayer too.

There would appear to be an inverse proportion of crime writers in a country to the numbers of actual crimes committed. Consequently, South Africa, with its spectacular display of crime has produced a handful of crime novelists, while Australia is bursting at the seams with them. Perhaps an increase in the number of crime novels in South Africa will bring our crime stats down. I find it difficult to commit crimes while typing. However, a crime reduction in South Africa seems as unlikely as a sunny day in Sweden.

Finding Peace in the Throb of Belgrade

‘Madam, would you like a savage?’ A long week in Belgrade – I have been here for the annual congress of PEN, the international association of writers – has left me a left me slower than usual. Nevertheless I cast about valiantly for an answer. The Serbian air steward is glaring at me.

‘Ham savage or cheese savage?’ he barks.

I go for the cheese, some strong coffee. Awake now, I watch the plain that the Danube snakes through roll beneath us. Europe, with its frenzy of little squabbling countries is so tiny. It took the same time to fly from London to Belgrade as it does to fly from Cape Town to Johannesburg.

Serbia is a country where everyone seems to drink as much as possible. Everyone smokes too, everywhere, all the time. The taxi drivers don’t wear seatbelts. This cavalier approach to what the British call ‘health and safety’ is a relief after the fussiness of London. A week of apricot brandy, surprisingly good Balkan wine and no sleep has left me feeling fragile. Some nanny-state care is appealing.

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.

Cats in Crime Fiction: Pesky Plot Problem or Tactile Treat?

No one has ever asked me how to commit murder, but given my research, this is a subject in which I am better qualified than baking.

But the people who write to columnists clearly prefer cooking to crime, so I was inundated with recipe requests after last week’s column. It was Mark Twain who pointed out that “clothes make the man. Naked people have no influence upon society.” This is not true in the case of Jamie Oliver, whose orange and polenta biscuit recipe I nicked from The Naked Chef.

I’d say eat them with espresso made in an Italian stovetop percolator rather than those poncy coffee machines that look like something from Star Trek and that you need a degree in mechanical engineering to operate.

Coffee, by the way, is a crime essential. Barbara Nadel, who has a delightful series featuring an Istanbul detective, wrote to me saying she had checked on her put-upon lead only to find that she never fed the poor man. All he did was smoke and drink coffee. Considering that he is the father of 11 children, if I remember correctly, he might appreciate the biscuits.

How I was detained and charged with treason as a student in 1985

I have written an article for the Guardian about the time I was arrested, detained and charged with treason for my involvement in a protest against PW Botha’s state of emergency in 1985:

On 20 July 1985, PW Botha, then-president of South Africa, declared a state of emergency in the areas around Johannesburg and the Eastern Cape. The police were given unlimited powers of arrest and detention without trial. It was the beginning of apartheid’s long and violent endgame.

One afternoon in October of the same year, a friend stops by. The state of emergency has been extended to the Western Cape, she says. I must come. There’s a protest march at the University of Cape Town. I have been involved in student politics (writing, protesting, marching) since 1983, so I abandon the Romantic poets – preparation for my final exams – and we drive up to the university. The police are on one side of De Waal Drive, the protesting students on the other. We hold up placards – mine says Stop the State of Emergency – as the indifferent commuter traffic heads for the cocooned southern suburbs.

I watch the cops. I don’t like tear gas. “Five minutes to disperse!” yells the bull-necked officer, but the police are already charging. Everybody runs. I look back. There’s a cop gaining on me. His skin is raw from shaving and acne. I pass out.

Is Food Replacing Sex in Crime Fiction?

I have reached the Duke of Wellington’s ‘publish and be damned’ phase of writing. My book is off my hands and at the printers. But danger lurks, in the form of earnest interviewers. ‘What did I think,’ one asked me the other day, ‘about the fact that food is replacing sex as the recreational activity of choice in crime fiction.’

This is a theory that has been bandied about by recently by people who read crime rather than write it.I have not given it much thought as I find wrestling a plot into a semblance of coherence enough. The last thing I need is my heroine slacking off and eating strawberries in bed with handsome men. I am not paid to write Joanna Trollope novels, after all. I have tension to build, innocents to kill, killers to catch. Food in my experience, is like sex. It needs a bit the languid leeway of time, wine and the possibility of seconds to be a pleasure.

That said, it is obvious that crime fiction and the never-to-be-dismissed pleasure of the quickie have a long and entwined history. You only have to look at the covers of early crime classics – the gumshoe with a cocked gun, the bottle-blonde with the heaving bosom in the background – to know that. Crime fiction depends on big-hearted good-time girls. From Damon Runyon’s sassy broads to the high-heeled, wasp-waisted film noir blondes, to the easy lays who smoke their way through the Elmore Leonards. Much of the sex, sadly, has been of the pounce-and-thrust variety. The act itself, a knee-trembler with a new girl every fifty pages or so, never takes long. The etiquette of foreplay and after-cuddle must never get in the way of our hero from putting his fedora hat back on his head and hunting down the bad guys.

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.

What Do Women Want?

‘What do women want?’ That was the question that perplexed Freud as he formulated his notions of the subconscious. What women get, that might be a better question to start, because the gulf that lies between what we want and what we get is the reality of a woman’s life.

In crime fiction women all too often get short shrift. They are the default victims of the genre. Their lovely, mutilated and mute bodies trigger the gun-toting heroes – and the odd heroine, my own Clare Hart included – who avenge their gruesome deaths at the hands of serial misogynists.

Freud famously failed to answer his own question. It always amazes me when brilliant men miss the perfectly obvious, so I’ll spell it out. Being a woman myself, I can tell you that I’d rather be alive than be avenged. Living in South Africa one often feels as if one were living inside a crime novel where the author has lost the plot. And the effects of this plot-loss are seen in the astounding levels of sexual violence and the infrequency with which perpetrators are jailed.

But women know what they want, and unless you are a deaf mute, they say it round the world loud and clear. Women want what men want – political rights, economic parity and a safe, warm house where nobody hits them. Women are people, after all, just like men and we don’t like to be messed with.

Babies and Books Have a Lot in Common

My new crime thriller, Gallows Hill, is going to the typesetter this weekend, so I am deep in the never-ending end of the final edit. Pin-pointing the end of the process of writing a book is a little like identifying that moment when one’s adult children leave home. Just as you think the book is done/the kids have moved out it/they return. But with hindsight, I can see that the end-of-the-end started exactly a month ago with the birth of my tiny nephew. My three year-old niece came to spend the night with me while her bug-eyed parents went to hospital. Both of them were stricken with that look people get when the future in the form of an infant – inexorable, painful and expensive – bears down on them.

That night was dark and stormy; I know this because my roof leaked, soaking my three-year-old niece to the skin. It was midnight before I got her dry again and settled her in my bed, but I couldn’t go back to sleep. Not with the book deadline rushing at me like a bullet train driven by my implacable publisher. So, I just stayed up and worked all night; my manuscript was overdue. It had to be in. Now. Like the baby being born, there was no more give! As I worked later and later into the night, it occurred to me how alike babies and books are; the four a.m. sleeplessness being only the most superficial similarity.

There are others. Both babies and books seem like an astoundingly good idea when you get them started. That’s the fun part. It is usually quick, often done on holiday under the influence of alcohol. These happy origins are rapidly forgotten by everybody except the author and/or mother as gestation takes place out of sight, if not out of mind.

This discreet phase, however, has one inevitable and melodramatic ending: an agonising labour. Books, like babies, require blood, sweat, tears and the occasional star in the east before they will be delivered. In the immediate and exhausted aftermath there is a non-pregnant pause when everyone with a vested interest holds their collective breath and the book/baby is checked. Head, body, arms, legs, fingers, toes for the babies. Plot, style, tension, character, dialogue, profit potential, for books.

Anders Breivik’s Crime Is Both Stupendous and Banal

Scandinavian crime fiction stormed the world when the Swedish writer, Stieg Larsson, unleashed the anorexic and tattooed revenge-hacker, Lisbeth Salandar, and the chain-smoking left-leaning journalist Blomqvist. Jo Nesbo, Larsson’s Norwegian partner in crime fiction, describes similarly bizarre murders that, to a South African, could seem comical at times in relation to the regulated tolerance of the liberal, feminist social democracies of Scandinavia.

But the warning was there, crime fiction when done well, can be both sharply and prescient of the gathering social storms that cause the smooth surface waters of a society to eddy into violence. Larsson’s books, like many of the Scandinavian wave of crime writers, carry in them the spectre of the far right, something dark, furtive and violent prowling on the edges of these novels and on the lunatic fringes of society.

That was until last Friday when a truck packed with a fertiliser bomb detonated in central Oslo. The gun-jump of the western media was startling. The attack was immediately, and without reference to any facts, assumed to have been perpetrated by Muslim jihadists, that familiar and comprehensible enemy without. This was to be Norway’s 9/11. But then the reports started coming in of a man shooting scores of beautiful children attending an island summer camp. The axis of comfort and assumption convulsed when the realisation spread that the meticulously ordered killer was a muscular, blonde Norwegian man.

Difference, challenge, defiance, discussion – all the things that result from the melting-pot cultures that result from immigration, travel, migrant labour, globalisation, the unassailable facts of the world we all inhabit, threaten the narcissistic individual when they change (for better and for worse) previously homogenous societies. The narcissism of Breivik, the perpetrator, is chilling. Hidden away in his manifesto– a weird jumble of medieval Christianity, machismo, violence, and xenophobia – is a fetish with his appearance, his bodybuilding, his visits to the solarium in the period prior to the attacks, his sense of superiority to others. But anything that is different, that is ‘other’, is perceived as a threat because it disturbs a rigid and fanatically held sense of self. This psychotic and fragile vanity, his explosive narcissism, seems to parallel his politics of racial purity and exclusion.