A gruesome tale of evil

2013-02-27 00:00

OPEN a local newspaper in February 2013, and it is all about the Oscar Pistorius case. The level of obsession was the same back in 1957 when it was the Clarence van Buuren case.

Those papers are yellow and brittle now, and alongside the murder there is more international news than you can see in these days of the so-called global village. But it was murder that grabbed the headlines.

Joy Aken, an 18-year-old secretary from Pinetown, disappeared after leaving work in October 1956. Her shot and mutilated body was found in a storm water culvert near the Umtwalumi River bridge on the South Coast road some days later.

A psychic named Nelson Palmer claimed he had gone into a trance and located the body. That made for big headlines.

Smooth, plausible and articulate, Van Buuren was charged with her murder after a huge manhunt.

He was tried, found guilty and hanged, protesting his innocence right up to the gallows. More headlines.

Now Chris Marnewick, author of Shepherds and Butchers and two subsequent thrillers, has launched the English edition of his book, Clarence van Buuren: Knew the words but not the Music.

Marnewick, formerly a silk at the Bar in Durban and now living in New Zealand, admits the case has haunted him since, as an eight-year-old, he went to fetch the newspaper for a neighbour and saw the story saying Van Buuren had been hanged, still claiming he was not the killer.

Marnewick says the case is one of the reasons he went on later to study law. And as his book shows, there have been all kinds of coincidences along the way to keep it in his mind: his first job as a prosecutor saw him sent to Pinetown, the scene of the crime, and his father-in-law was one of the interpreters in the trial and talked to him about it.

Marnewick has written his book as what he calls “creative non-fiction”, the genre that really began with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

“It’s not about the police investigation, or the court case [though obviously they are an important part of the book], but about my investigation,” says Marnewick.

In places, he uses direct speech, giving what he imagines would have been the conversations between killer and victim, and his final chapter is a recreation of what may have happened on the evening of the murder.

Combining this with the story of his own, often uncomfortable, obsession makes for an unusual approach.

Marnewick has no doubt about Van Buuren’s guilt — and his meticulous research is convincing — but he explains that the original investigation never went into why Van Buuren killed Aken. What drove that man with a criminal record, but no previous history of violence, to murder?

“There are still rumours in Pinetown that Joy Aken wasn’t a ‘good girl’, that she had died on the abortion table and that Van Buuren had disposed of the body.”

Marnewick says his investigations show there is nothing in those stories, but the fact they exist suggests he is not the only person still fascinated by the case.

He also discredits the story of Palmer the psychic.

Again, the book convinced me: the body was actually found by a dog, but, as Marnewick says: “People tend to believe what they want to believe.”

Talking about this case, as well as his years as a lawyer, Marnewick says: “I have become convinced that evil exists as an individual force in the universe.

“Van Buuren appeared normal, educated, well-spoken, intelligent and was well-liked in certain circles. Women doted on him.

“When he was on death row, he wrote poignant letters about his wife and children.” And it is this last point that explains Marnewick’s sub-title — Knew the Words but not the Music.

“He knew what to say, how to project a certain image, but the true meaning of the words was beyond him. He never understood the emotional content of what he was saying.”

It made Van Buuren a dangerous man.

Marnewick goes on: “I asked myself, how could this happen? I’m a parent and a grandparent, and I’m scared for my children because evil catches up with us, stalks us and destroys.”

Believe that, and it is easier to see why Van Buuren has lurked in the back of Marnewick’s mind for all these years.

Another part of the story is the continuing hunt for evidence, for a piece of the puzzle that might suddenly show the whole picture.

Marnewick has been putting his dossier on the Aken murder together for years, but it was only after the book was published that Marnewick found one of the last missing pieces.

The trail of Van Buuren had gone cold: he had left the then Natal province, and the police had no idea where to look.

And yet, on the day he was captured, there was a huge police search in a confined area of Pinetown. How did they know he was there? And who had helped him?

It was only when the son of the investigating officer was assisting his elderly mother to pack up her house and sent a file of papers to Marnewick that the question was answered.

In the file was a small note describing how a Mr Van der Merwe from Umbilo Road in Durban saw a man fitting Van Buuren’s description — his photograph had been splashed over all the newspapers — getting out of a car on the national road near Pinetown.

The car drove off, and Van der Merwe noticed that there were two number plates, one on top of the other and the top one had slipped.

So he reported his suspicions to the police. The hunt began and the killer was caught.

Marnewick believes the car was driven by one of Van Buuren’s criminal contacts, never identified.

The book tells a gruesome tale of evil, paralleled by the story of years of meticulous research.

But it is the idea of that evil that remains and disturbs.

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