Truth meets fiction for SA crime writers

2010-08-05 10:33

An American tourist runs breathlessly through the streets of Cape Town, desperate to escape the killers who have already murdered one of her friends.

The scene from South African best-seller Deon Meyer’s latest novel 13 hours is fictional, but springs from fertile soil for the genre in a nation where truth is often bloodier than fiction and crime claims 50 lives a day.

Meyer, whose international book tours include regular grillings on crime which he argues must be seen in context, said: “To me there’s absolutely no relationship between real-world crime in South Africa and crime fiction.

“Most crime in South Africa is very undramatic and unexciting. It’s mostly domestic in nature, it happens in the disadvantaged communities. Something like 83% of all crime in South Africa, especially violent crime, happens there.

“There’s nothing sexy about that. It’s sad – but you can’t fictionalise it,” he said at the Cape Town Book Fair, which ended this week.

South Africa averages more than 18 000 murders a year with a high robbery and rape rate that has fuelled a safety-obsessed society of private security firms and high walls, 16 years after apartheid.

And peddling crime to those at the coalface is anything but straightforward.

Analyst Antony Altbeker, who has drawn three non-fiction books from the statistics with hard-hitting titles like A Country at War with Itself, points out that Sweden this year published more crime novels than had murders.

But his own publisher did not finish his latest manuscript on a real-life murder of a young student due to a killing in his family.

Altbeker said: “We do have a lot of crime material to write. It’s not straightforward how you deal with that as a South African writer because your market is a market of people who have been vicariously victimised and who carry a lot of trauma.”

The range of crime plots ranges from bloodthirsty depravity to hovering menace which is drawing praise from readers and critics, with Meyer leading the pack with his work translated into 20 languages.

Margie Orford, the author of Daddy’s Girl and Blood Rose, believes she would not be writing crime if she did not live in South Africa.

She said: “I didn’t mean to write crime fiction, I meant to write about how South Africa is and then crime fiction just seemed the completely obvious bit.”

Geography has also led the local authors to grapple uniquely South African dilemmas, like whether their books will reinforce the dogged image of a country overrun by crime and at the constant edge of racial war.

Meyer, who takes issue with the “rampant” crime peg, admitted: “It’s something that I often struggle with when I’m writing the book: how does this reinforce the often mostly false perceptions that people have overseas of South Africa, do I have a responsibility to change those perceptions?

“Eventually I said no I don’t. In the book itself, my biggest responsibility is to tell a story in an entertaining way that people will feel that it was worth the money spent on the book. We often read crime fiction, I think, because we get justice in the end.

“It doesn’t work that way in real life. But in crime fiction it gives people great satisfiction to see the bad guys get their come-uppance,” he said.

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