True tales of crime

2008-02-06 00:00

Chris Karsten, a former journalist who was involved as a newspaperman with almost every story in his True Crime series, has produced four titles so far. Material for the stories comes from newspaper archives, from court files, from conversations with police and forensic experts, and also from witnesses, relatives and others closely connected to the events concerned. His style is cool, factual and low-key, without the prurience that often characterises South African true-crime writing. He appears to have no political axe to grind, and although he must have had personal feelings and opinions, especially about some of the more brutal and senseless crimes, these seldom obtrude.

The most irritating aspect of the books is an occasional tendency to show off, with irrelevant, half-digested references to Kafka, for example, or to Hippocrates or Plutarch. He goes so far as to waste a page on the events surrounding the murder of Josslyn Hay, Earl of Erroll, in Kenya in 1941.

On the whole, though, each tale is economically told. Perhaps least satisfactory of the Killer Women collection is the very first, which purports to tell the full story of the killing, by her mother, of Charlize Theron’s father: the story is in fact still incomplete, and will probably remain so. For the rest we have a parade of poisoners (Unita Green), women crazed with violent sexual desire (Nina Oliver) or motivated by jealousy (Marie Krebs), women who devise complex murder plots (Bettie de Vries), or who hire killers (Lynn Harvey, Dina Rodrigues) or who, trapped in abusive marriages, kill in extremes (Anne-Marie Engelbrecht). Included also is the case of the wretched Mariette Bosch, executed, despite widespread international protest, in Botswana in 2001.

The cases covered in Bad Kids are more disquieting. Teenagers who kill their parents raise dreadful questions about family life in this country, and the accounts of children who gang up on and kill other children make grim reading, as do stories of juveniles who kill during armed robberies. A well-balanced presentation of the killing of Amy Biehl by politically-inflamed Gugulethu teenagers is given, and there is also the story of Pietermaritzburg’s own cause célèbre, the murderous would-be Bonnie and Clyde couple, Charmaine Phillips (18) and Peter Grundlingh, who left a trail of booze, dope and blood across the country in 1983. The spectrum of violent crimes committed by young people of all races, whether for money, for revenge, for fun or out of desperation bred in cruel home circumstances, boggles the mind.

A review of this kind can’t consider the social implications of the various categories of crime, but can only suggest that besides the true-crime aficionados who will appreciate these readable books, social scientists and educationalists might find them worth studying.

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