The real deal

2013-10-22 11:00

Books about true crimes in South Africa are often thrilling bestsellers. But why are certain crimes turned into books in no time while others are not? Crime writer Mike Nicol explores the question.

Three men in a black Citi Golf Velocity are trying to shoot a man in a Mercedes-Benz. They’re in Joburg’s Melrose area, heading towards the M1. On the first pass the gun jams. They come back a second time.

‘On every attempt, every time I pointed the gun at him and pulled the trigger, he lifted his right shoulder a little bit. This time, I leaned out the window and I didn’t aim at his head. I aimed at his body. I had to make sure. I pulled the trigger once and it started to go off. I just carried on firing. I just saw Brett taking bullets and he had this painful look on his face and he didn’t make a noise. He didn’t make an “ah ooh” or anything like that. He was just like that with his shoulder up as the bullets were hitting him. I kept on firing and Kappie pulled away and the last bullet missed him and went in the back window and Kappie said, “Enough.”’

That’s self-confessed hitman Mikey Schultz talking about the murder of businessman Brett Kebble. They were engaged in what was otherwise known asan ‘assisted suicide’.

The extract comes from Mandy Wiener’s bestselling Killing Kebble and it has all the detail of being right there in the moment Kebble was killed.

It’s what happened. It’s the truth, and that’s why readers rushed out to buy the book in their thousands. Which brings in the question: why is true crime suddenly shifting books by the truckload?

We’re in a country where there are enough murders a year to qualify for a small war, and now we seem to be fascinated by the sordidness of our murderous ways.

Take the Griekwastad murders. Deon Steenkamp, his wife Christel and their daughter Marthella (14) were murdered on Good Friday last year on their farm on the lonely plains outside the town. The bodies were found by their then-15-year-old son.

It seemed like a farm murder – until a teenager was arrested and charged with murder, rape and defeating justice.

The trial will resume on Monday in Kimberley’s High Court. New technology was used in the reading of the crime scene, but defence lawyers have also suggested the crime scene could have been disturbed.

There are two books in the writing about this murder: one by Jacques Steenkamp for Zebra Press (Die Griekwastad-moorde: Die misdaad wat Suid-Afrika geruk het), the other, Moord by Griekwastad, by Charne Kemp for Tafelberg.

Here we have a case fraught with emotional and procedural issues, but did it shake South Africa? I’m not so sure.

Yes, the murder is fascinating for a number of reasons, not least because of the young person on trial. But there are other factors: the family is white and Afrikaans, the newspapers that have homed in on the case largely sell to a white Afrikaans market.

The books will target them, although there will also be English editions. The question then becomes: would this murder have disappeared among the deluge of other murders were it not for an interest group and a media machine running with the story?

The answer is probably yes. Why, for instance, is there no book about the 14-year-old who allegedly axed four members of his family to death in their East Rand home in May this year? Could it be there is no readership for such a murder and, consequently, less media interest?

In the Griekwastad story it was Tafelberg who approached Charné Kemp to write her book. Why? Because ‘the whole event seems so unlikely’, says Annie de Beer, Kemp’s editor at Tafelberg, ‘which is what sets it apart it from the many other crimes we hear of daily.

Kemp is taking quite a personal approach to this story. It is about the crime, but it is also very much about the people involved. She has become quite close to some of the family members and she looks at the impact that these murders have had on them.’

This, of course, is what we want of true crime stories – the inside information. We want to know why the murder happened.

We live in a violent society and most of us have experienced some violent crime, and for this reason De Beer believes our interest is less about voyeurism and more a need to make sense of our society.

But I’m still not convinced. I agree with De Beer that ‘the reasons for violence and crime in our society are complex and varied’. I agree that ‘good true-crime books scrutinise these reasons’.

I agree that ‘true crime is not a window to our collective soul as much as a magnifying glass examining that soul’.

Which is the point. True crime is easy to assimilate. It is easy to read. It is often narrowly focused on an individual. And in most cases we already know the outcome by the time we read the book. So maybe there is also a voyeuristic element to our fascination with true crime?

Go back to the Brett Kebble killing. Here was a high-profile businessman with a lot of dirt about fraud and corruption swirling in his slipstream.

His story was fascinating and it became compulsive reading in daily newspapers after the murder.

Then when the arrests and the court case brought in figures from Johannesburg’s underworld – Glenn Agliotti, top cop Jackie Selebi and guys such as Mikey Schultz, Nigel McGurk and Fiazal ‘Kappie’ Smith – then the story needed more than newspaper columns; it needed a book.

Well, not just one book but another two by Barry Sergeant (who is rumoured to have a third on the way).

Again, it was a media event. Kebble was the equivalent of a celebrity. He garnered lots of media coverage and so there was a market hungry for the details, which a book supplies.

South Africa does have a tradition of publishing true crime, yet a new fervour

has entered our publishing industry and our reading when it comes to these books. Apart from being commercially successful, they also win many non-fiction prizes, which gives them added clout. But their measure has to be taken by their sales.

Lolly Jackson: When Fantasy Becomes Reality by Sean Newman, Peter Piegl and Karyn Maughan racheted up 20 000 copies at the tills in no time.

Again, here was a larger-than-life character. The owner of Teazers with a penchant for fast women and fast cars found dead in his home with bullet wounds to the back and head. With these books an underworld was glimpsed, and maybe this is part of the South African soul.

‘Daily news reports tend to be quite superficial,’ Wiener says, ‘so the public is never really fully aware of the extent of these crime syndicates and they are often confused about how all the pieces fit together. Killing Kebble was able to pull all that together and give an insight into how politics, business and crime collide.’

Not all crimes have those three ingredients though. Take the Oscar Pistorius case: world-famous athlete kills his model girlfriend.

Within two days of the story breaking, my UK publisher asked if I wanted to write a book about the murder. I didn’t.

I had written on the Anni Dewani killing (published as Monkey Business) because of the social issues involved, but Oscar Pistorius seemed to be about one man and his problems.

Of course, Oscar is a celebrity and celebrity sells. Soon enough Pan Macmillan had signed a deal with 702 reporters Mandy Wiener and Barry Bateman; Zebra Press with Jacques Steenkamp and Gavin Prins, and Penguin contracted veteran SA watcher John Carlin.

The three books are due to appear after the trial in March next year.

This fascination with the Pistorius case raises the race issue again: why is there not a book on Taliep Petersen’s murder? He was a celebrity, a showbiz personality. That story was about dark human emotions and contracted hitmen.

And why isn’t there a book on the horrible rape and murder of Bredasdorp teenager Anene Booysen, whose case went to court again this month? That was a story that angered the country and shone a light on conditions in a small town.

If the criteria are politics, business and crime and the mayhem they occasion when they collide, then why is nobody rushing out a book on the building of the Mbombela Stadium?

If ever there was skulduggery, a tale of murder, irregular tenders, conflicts of interest, overpayments, tax evasion, then this is it. But no book.

I can only think that while the book-buying market remains largely white, the true-crime publishing phenomenon will be mainly about that part of the South African psyche. Not so much an insight into society as tales about mysterious killings in the dark.

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