When one of my beta readers was reading an early draft of Balthasar’s Gift, she wrote a series of notes in the margins, asking why I was not dealing with the issue of race in South Africa. “Your novel is set in 2000, shortly after the birth of South Africa’s democracy – I want to know what this means for the characters. What does it mean for a white journalist to report to a black editor? What does it mean that her best friend is Indian? How can a black boy go to a white private school?”
As she progressed through the novel, her marginalia changed. “Okay, I see what you doing. You are not planning to explain it all. You are leaving it to the reader to deduce. Hmmm, I was hoping for more.”
All novels set in South Africa, crime fiction or not, are about race, just as all novels set in the USA are about the American dream, while all novels in set in England are about class. Race is our ur-story. It is there, written into everything we write.
There was no need for me to ploddingly point to race issues in the novel, in order to satisfy a European audience. No need for me to explain.
However there were other issues I wanted to address.
I am a huge fan of crime fiction. But I am also sick to death of one particular crime trope. Next time you are in a bookshop, do this exercise: Approach the crime fiction section and pick up the first book that comes to hand. Does it start with the mutilated body of a beautiful young woman? Check. Try ten books. It’ll only take a couple of minutes. You might only need to read the dust-jacket. I can guarantee you that eight out of ten of those novels will start with someone young, beautiful, dead, and female. Naked and mutilated are optional extras.
In case you don’t believe me, here’s my ten minutes of research:
“When a troubled model falls to her death ….” Robert Galbraith, aka JK Rowling, The Cuckoo’s Calling
“A young girl’s mutilated body is discovered in a sealed room.” James Oswald, Natural Causes.
“It is in this pressure cooker atmosphere that murder takes place (this is an Ann Cleeves novel, after all) and the body of a woman is found with her hair laced with feathers.” Ann Cleeves, Blue Lightning
“Detective Harry Hole is meant to keep out of trouble. A young Norwegian girl taking a gap year in Sydney has been murdered, and Harry has been sent to Australia to assist in any way he can.” Jo Nesbo, The Bat
“A plane falls out of the sky. A woman is murdered. Four people all have something to hide.” Emma Kavanagh, Falling
My goal, in this ever-lasting onslaught of sexy corpses, was to write a crime novel in which the initiating incident was not the death of a woman. Given the level of sexual violence and rape in South Africa and the level of intimate femicide, it would have been an easy route to take. I chose not to. The challenge was to ensure that the novel was fast-paced and gripping, even without a sexy corpse.
Thanks to the onslaught in novels, TV, film and advertising, we are completely inured to dead, victimised and subjugated women. They are the blank slate upon which heroism and agency can be written, as well as upon which money can be made. According to Kira Cochrane, writing in the Guardian: “This obsession with death isn’t so surprising, when you consider it as the obvious and ultimate end point of a spectrum in which women’s passivity and silence is sexualised, stylised and highly saleable.”
So if I was writing against the highly marketable violence against women, what was I writing towards?
For one thing, I wanted to give women agency. So while the female protagonist in Balthasar’s Gift chases recklessly after the killer, leaving her boyfriend at home to look after the kids, the woman who finally brings the murderer in is someone who is disenfranchised, marginalised and, up to this point in the novel, voiceless.
Another thing I wanted to address is something that unites us all – all cultures, all nations – and that is intolerance of the other. And nothing was more othering in South Africa in the late twentieth century than HIV/AIDS; so much so that our newly elected democratic government refused to acknowledge that HIV led to AIDS and so refused to provide the much-needed anti-retrovirals that would give people with HIV at least a chance at a normal life. Hundreds of thousands of economically active people contracted HIV and then died of AIDS-related illnesses, leaving behind nearly two million AIDS orphans. Many of these children were themselves othered – turned out of their communities, robbed and driven onto the streets.
It seemed necessary to me to construct a story around a nation that had so recently driven racial intolerance out of its statutes, but which was diving headlong, arms wide out in a vast embrace, into a new kind of intolerance – against people with HIV and the activists who tried to help them.
I wanted to write crime fiction that was imbued with social realism. As a reader, I find a standard whodunnit with baddie versus detective and neat wrap-up pretty boring. Stieg Larsson’s trilogy fired the imaginations of millions not only because of its violent set-pieces (against both men and women), but also because he mired them with social detail. As a writer, and particularly as a South African writer, I wanted to tackle social issues, not as a political whipping-stick, but to show how they affect individuals in their daily lives. Because if we care that a ten year-old child heads a household of four other children, including one dying of complications from AIDS, then maybe we will do something about it.
Just as science fiction set in other worlds is a chance to reimagine our own, crime fiction offers us the chance to see our world as it is – with all its gritty, bleak and tragic details – and to repair it.