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A Guide to the Capetown Past and Present by Mike Nicol
Finding your landscape – or cityscape – is one of those quests we all face to some degree. Having a sense of place is reassuring. Mine is Cape Town. Always has been and probably always will be. I’ve lived here most of my life and the city has been a constant factor in my writing but never more so than in the crime novels I’ve written in the last six years.
When it comes to finding a setting for a crime novel Cape Town has it all: the ocean, beaches, a mountain slap bang down the middle of what is a peninsular city, a vibrant and attractive downtown, expensive suburbs hugging the mountain and overlooking the ocean, winelands, wine, and then in raw contrast the poverty of the black townships and squatter camps, and degraded, often gang-ridden inner city areas and the violent zones on the Cape Flats where coloured people were dumped by the racist policies of the apartheid state forty years ago. It is a city of great beauty and great ugliness. A city of contrasts. A city of extremes. And what is crime fiction if not a story of extremes?
This sort of social, political, cultural and, yes, economic complexity has long attracted me. And of course it is the territory of those crime novels I prefer to read. The personal deviancies of serial killers and rapists are not my bag. Perhaps because I started writing when apartheid was at its most extreme in the 1970s, I have always focused on social issues. Since South Africa burned and bled and talked its way into a democracy in 1994, we have seen a government that held the moral highground crash into cronyism, graft, corruption, greed, turpitude as the new elite have got their hands on the spoils. We have seen breathtaking kickbacks from arms deals accumulate in the pockets of the powerful, we have seen land grabs that resulted in huge property developments that benefited the arrivistas, we have learnt of strange murders and payoffs, we have witnessed whistleblowers reduced to trembling paranoids fearful of anything that goes bump in the night. This is all the stuff of crime fiction and has gone to form the background plot to my novels.
Certainly the second in my trilogy, Killer Country, found its material in the corruption around property developments and what could be called insider trading on mining rights both of which activities tend to leave a trail of dead bodies when things go wrong which they inevitably do. This sounds heavy and all very worthy, I realise, as if it’s something of a moral crusade I’m on. Hardly. The last thing I’m interested in is letting the message get in the way of a good story. In my other life I’m a journalist so I know what happens when facts intervene – the story generally goes south. However, as an ardent crime fiction reader I learnt a long time back that if you want a glimpse into a nation’s soul, read their crime writers. These days, too, if you want a street guide to a foreign city, you can often do worse than buy a crime novel set in your holiday destination. You not only get a restaurant and cafe guide, but the nightlife bars and clubs get the nod, and as an added bonus you’re given advance warning on which corners of the city to avoid (or not depending on your intentions). If you’re thinking of visiting Cape Town you’ll get the low-down on the imaginary city in our crime novels (so also take a look at the books of my fellow citizens, especially Margie Orford’s Daddy’s Girl and Deon Meyer’s Devil’s Peak).
Strangely, until the crime genre started flourishing locally about five years ago, Cape Town did not exist as a imaginary city. If it was referred to at all in novels, the city seemed more a metaphor than a real place. But our crime fiction changed all that. Because crime fiction favours realism – even if it’s realism on steroids – it has given the city an imaginary life and simultaneously become the quintessential critique of our urban living. This has been a major attraction for me, as has the genre’s hardboiled language that has swept our street smart slangy patois into my fiction, literally giving a new vocabulary and rhythm to my city – both the real one and its fictional shadow.
Some locals have welcomed this: ‘At last I can read about the city I live in,’ is a common (and welcome) response. But I’ve also had: ‘I couldn’t finish the book, the characters were too scary.’ This speaks to that nexus between our true crime – which is violent and constant and everywhere – and our crime fiction. It perhaps also speaks to a hangover from our apartheid literature when our novels were read as the stuff newspapers couldn’t print. Many of our home-readers have yet to realise that crime fiction is a fairy tale, and like all fairy tales can be extremely disconcerting even if, in the end, everything works out. Well, at least sort of.
It might be that a number of books mentioned by South African writers are unavailable in the US, however, there are three good, reliable online bookstores: