An interview with Joe Muller about The Revenge Trilogy
Joe Muller conducted these interviews for Crime Beat on publication of each of the three novels. The Payback interview was posted in 2008, Killer Country in 2010 and Black Heart in August 2011.
Joe Muller: A leitmotif in a good deal of current South African crime fiction is redemption, directed at moral closure, trying to make a corrupt and venal SA safer for the populace. I don’t see this in the amoral parables of Elmore Leonard, Donald Westlake/Richard Stark and others, and I don’t see it in Payback. Like some scheming Greek goddess, Sheemina February stalks through the story plotting vengeance, and the main protagonist Mace Bishop survives a series of vicious encounters, only just. Sheemina seems hell bent on her writ-large but singular psychological obsession, and Mace, normally coldly efficient in the execution of his duties, seems oddly vulnerable. The script is wildly unpredictable, and on no course for a comforting denouement. How do you see the moralities of contemporary crime fiction, and of Payback?
Mike Nicol: One thing’s for sure, crime fiction isn’t what it used to be. It may be a fable, and good may triumph over evil in most instances but nothing is quite as clear cut as it was in the Golden Age crime novels and their derivatives where the chaos was restored to order after Miss Marple had fingered the murderer. This simplicity is no longer possible. Now, the moral body that has been sliced open has been bandaged by the end of the book, but the bandage is obvious and the wound beneath is probably still bleeding visibly.
When this scenario is presented as a police procedural, the cops do come out on top at the end: good/the state wins. This is part of the convention and this has been the direction in most local crime fiction for the reason you posit: redemption. We’re talking ourselves into a safer country. We’re trying to convince ourselves that the institutions of state still function in the interests of the peace-loving citizenry.
I didn’t feel I could do this. So that discounted the police procedural. The next option was the private investigator but I didn’t want my novel to be an outside investigation of a moral lapse, I wanted the main characters to be inside the lapse, indeed responsible for it. And where best to find such characters but in the ranks of our new guardians, the privately paid security forces which try to keep us safe. Here was the new interface between good and evil, a hotly disputed terrain that challenges the state’s ability to safeguard its citizens even while it (the security company) does just that. This no man’s land of the privately contracted guardian seemed to me to contain the moral dilemmas which crime fiction should confront.
For me the best crime writing has always offered the more complex moral position: what if the apparent evil had a solid reason for exacting moral justice because judicial justice simply wouldn’t be possible? What if the apparent good was once corrupt and had been culpable of brutality and cold violence? In other words what insecurity would this ambivalence in the concepts of good and evil bring to a narrative? I suppose, it was out of this moral fissure that Payback was born: the good guy Mace pitted against the evil witch Sheemina. Excepting, of course, it’s not as simple as it seems.
JM: Let’s talk about Payback’s women. They are a particularly vivid bunch that cover the spectrum; let me re-phrase that, they invent a whole new spectrum. We’ll leave young Christa the daughter out for the moment. Mace’s wife Oumou is not only an appealing character, she is depicted with a feminine sangfroid rare in the genre; she has the virtue of Ruth and a knack for divining Mace’s evasions. Treasure, Pylon’s wife, is a little shadowy, but Vittoria and Isabella are anything but. Isabella, Mace’s old flame, manages to lead him astray; Vittoria snorts the white stuff, copulates like a rabbit, and manages to kill two gays and Isabella before she gets her comeuppance. But all of this pales next to the enigmatically weird Sheemina; she sends Mace anonymous SMSs and red roses, sends Oumou flowers anonymously, has kittens nailed alive to the wall of Club Catastrophe, has Christa kidnapped and her hair shorn off(!), buys Mace’s house and stays in it for three years, then has Mace abducted and incarcerated in what is now both his and her ex-cellar. (And when Pylon rescues him, Mace says mildly: ‘What the hell’s her case? What’s she think she’s playing at?’ Damn fine question, Mace old boyo. Here we’re only given tantalising clues.)
MN: Afraid so. An instance of watch this space…
JM: To repeat, these are no ordinary women. Where do they come from? Can you tell us a bit about women and crime, and what your thinking was when you created the hoyden Vittoria and the unbelievably believable Sheemina?
MN: Lovely word, hoyden. Fits her as well as the black leather glove fits Sheemina February’s left hand. But to the question: if you look at Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple then you’re looking at a woman who is astute, observant, and not going to be pushed around. She does things in her quiet way, but she gets her way. A lineage develops from her over the decades that leads to the femme fatale, a tough cookie able to undermine, even sabotage, the streetwise macho male PI or cop. In fact the female enters the noir novel with considerable force in the last half of the twentieth century, culminating for me with the quite terrifying Ramona Romano of Vicki Hendricks’s Iguana Love. As noir crime novels go Ramona leaves Ken Bruen’s Detective Sergeant Brant or Jason Starr’s David Miller (and if ever there was a creepy weirdo, he’s it) staring into the abyss. Whereas she’s down there in the darkness without a light.
I’m not much of a Kaye Scarpetta fan although I think that with her Patricia Cornwell updated Miss Marple into a yet more forceful kick-arse type, but I’m fully on the side of the smart and witty Kate Brannigan (one of the characters Val McDermid trots out from time to time) although sometimes Kate mixes it with the boys and I’m unable to tell the difference. Along this gender-bending score I think Sara Paretsky said of her V I Warshawski that in a movie the best person to play Warshawski would be Sylvester Stallone. A sort of Rambo in drag. Chick dicks sometimes take on too many of the qualities of their macho male counterparts methinks.
If there are three women who have been totally entrancing heroines in my crime fiction reading, then I’d have to name air-hostess Jackie Burke from Rum Punch, US Marshal Karen Sisco from the best love story I’ve ever read, Out of Sight, and Mickey the tennis mom from The Switch. I know this puts me in a certain corner because they’re all Elmore Leonard creations but what I like about them is that they’re sophisticated and ‘cool’. They get into dire situations but they keep their heads, they know what they want, and they’re fifteen moves ahead of the game. The men aren’t even in there with a chance. Nor are they self-consumed noir characters, they’re not bent and obsessive. In the street sense, they see what’s going down and they know just how to handle it.
This sort of cool is what I wanted for Sheemina February (the most noirish among them), Isabella and Vittoria. They all deal with the ‘cool’ in their own way, and I suppose how they handle it makes them either more or less scary. If there’s a hierarchy then Sheemina sits at the top controlling the moves; Isabella’s middle management able to jerk Mace around almost at whim, and Vittoria – the vamp with the nose candy – causes Mace a considerable amount of grief (literally). All three of them subvert Mace time and again and really his only guiding light in all this is his lovely lady wife, Oumou. I’m pleased you found her appealing. She’s Mace’s moral compass, after all by trade and at heart the guy’s a gunrunner. He knows how to source items of death and destruction. That’s been his life. Now he’s out trying to keep the baddies getting their hands on his rich clients, and he’s not doing too well, mostly because he’s up against three women running three different agendas. In trying to extract him from this mayhem, Oumou, the quiet potter, does her best to create a more caring compassionate world. Perhaps because she comes from a place of violence and has been the victim of violence, her entire moral force is aimed at achieving a humane way of living. Then again Sheemina February has been through a similar mill and behaves in quite the opposite manner. I suppose we all behave differently even if we’ve had similar experiences and because we do we create a narrative. So if there is a female tension to the Payback narrative then it’s Oumou against the troika of Sheemina, Isabella and Vittoria.
JM: That brings us back to the boys, and your answer clarifies a nagging sense of something about Payback’s boys I couldn’t put my finger on before. The girls are, as you say, not unlike the ‘cool’ heroines of Elmore Leonard; they are self-possessed, sexy, and above all, like Leonard’s characters, they make things happen. The boys are slightly different. Mace is ‘cool’, he is apparently sexy to all the girls except the hoyden, but here’s the thing: he mainly reacts to situations; he very rarely ‘makes the play’. Leonard’s boys are ‘cool’ precisely because they disrupt the playmakers and take the game away from them. Not so Mace, at least not when it involves the chicks; they seem to have him, severally, by the gorbals. When it comes to them, he had better react, and react quickly. That’s a departure if you ask me. Did you purposely write it like that? Is it a strength or a flaw, I wonder?
MN: That last question only you and the readers can answer. As for the second last question, Mace’s early life always seemed to me to be one of facilitation – more specifically trading. You want guns? I’ll get you guns. So he was not going to disrupt the playmakers so much as ensure that their games could go on. He then moves from being a trader to being a guard. Again this is a facilitating function: I’ll keep you safe from the baddies while you kick back. Excepting it’s not that easy as he comes to learn with the Pagad types and then with the wild Vittoria. Of course he also falls back into his old role as trader and then gets swept into a new position as prey. However, essentially Mace is about reacting, not about making the moves. Stuff happens to Mace. He doesn’t go out and cause trouble. The trouble comes to him. He’s the lone guy against the nasty world. And in this position he has to take on all comers: a jilted woman, an angry woman, mad bombers, street kids, demented weirdos out to nail his ass – as a mean mother would put it. And yes, Sheemina and Isabella have his number. They know what strings to pull. As does Oumou. But she is the flip side of the other two women even though, when you get down to the wire(s), she also has Mace where she wants him. Was this loner against the big bad world deliberate? Oh yes, I’ve always had a soft spot for fate. I think this probably goes back to the first time I read Hamlet, and thought, hell, this’s something I understand. This is a worldview that makes sense. You know, the ‘outrageous fortune’ stuff, the slings and arrows. In the face of this what’s the best that you can do? Be a stoic? Go with the flow? Or try and sell the arrows? I suppose try and sell the arrows, which is what Mace does. Only trouble he’s not that great with money and needs Pylon to handle the finances. All this said, how to make Mace ‘cool’ when he’s at the wrong end of a dire situation becomes the challenge. But if it wasn’t a challenge, there’d be no point.
JM:One of the many pleasures of Payback is its knowing way with language. There are inside references, sly meanings, and a host of semantic angles to bounce off. The title is one example. Payback is also the name of a film made in 1999 by John Helgeland, starring Mel Gibson, which is itself a re-make of John Boorman’s Point Blank starring Lee Marvin, both of which were based on the noir classic The Hunter by Richard Stark, one of the pen names of Donald Westlake (If you were wondering, although the plot of the book and the movies is vengeance, there plot resemblance with our Payback stops). But I digress. It’s the names of the protagonists that have teased me most. They are not ordinary names. Take Mace for example. Not easy to see what it could be short for, although ‘the Macedon’ once referred to Alexander the Great. But what a versatile name! It refers, severally, to a spiked club, a staff of office (as in the House of Commons), an early billiard (bagatelle) cue, one of the stranger spices which comes wrapped around the fruit nutmeg, and a chemical weapon that comes in a can. All of them or none of them, take your pick. Or on the other hand, a more obscure meaning from the Old French in the early Romances has ‘mace’ as a large hammer. Are we getting closer? Mace is after all famed as the man who coaxes out the truth from recalcitrants by breaking their fingers with a hammer.
Pylon is not as rewarding, but even so, a Pylon originally comes from Pylos (the Macedon and the Pylon?), more currently, the electricity things and Stephen Spender once wrote a poem called ‘The Pylons’ to refer to the modernist poets of the industrial landscape; before that, the monumental gateway to an Egyptian temple. And then there’s Oumou, the kind, gentle wife who lives with the horror memories of her violence drenched homeland, her name an almost-talisman (Oh no!) against new horrors certain to come. And Sheemina, a name hard to get any purchase on, some side glance there to Rider Haggard (She) and Bram Stoker (Mina Harker)? No? I didn’t really think so, but what pleasure skating sideways through the thickets. The question the reader always wants answered, a question that is never answered – how seriously are we to take these plays? How knowing is knowing? I can just imagine Mike Nicol smiling enigmatically at this, can’t you?
MN: He is.
JM: Mike, your readers of Payback opened the first page and turned the last with every expectation that they were reading a stand-alone novel, a singleton. Sure, there was a whole heap of unfinished business there, and the reader was left with a delicious feeling of open-endedness, but we had no sense of a serial to be continued, or for how long. Then bam, along comes Killer Country, and suddenly it’s not only a trilogy but a Revenge Trilogy, nogal. Were you always going to surprise us like this, or was it something that happened along the way of the first book that pulled your trigger? Or is the flat, cool subtitle of Killer Country ‘Assume nothing’ the Nicolesque answer to pre-empt the question?
MN: I have to admit that while writing Payback there was no thought to a sequel(s). In fact as Payback took damn near seven years to set down, most of the time all I wanted to do was finish it. But then towards the end I thought, no, hang-on, there’s a story worth pursuing between two of the major characters, Sheemina February and Mace Bishop, let alone the different angle on the crime genre that Mace and his partner Pylon Buso as security operatives gave me. And so to Killer Country. Even at that stage I wasn’t thinking much beyond the next book but then I thought, why not a quartet? But a trilogy is better on the less is more principle. The ‘revenge’ bit only came with number three.
Regarding the subtitle I have to fess up that the ‘assume nothing’ tag is not mine. The mesmerising cover for Killer Country and the one before it for Payback were designed by Georgia Demertzis. In the proofs she’d added the pay-off lines: ‘Revenge is never enough’ (for Payback) and ‘Assume nothing’ (for Killer Country). I liked them and so did the publisher so they stayed. Thanks Georgia.
JM: Good grief! That’s uncanny. It has just the right steel-hard tone to it: friendly advice from someone who knows that shit is going to happen. ‘I can keep a secret if you can’. Wait for it, here it comes… But Payback was a revenge dish only half eaten, so here’s Killer Country. The review in the M&G is quite respectful, takes it far too seriously in my humble opinion. You get compared to Cormac McCarthy, but I don’t think you go for that high moral hopelessness; that’s more JM Coetzee than Mike Nicol. Thing is, especially Killer Country is wildly comic, much more in the vein of that master of the dropped word, Elmore Leonard. I didn’t think anyone else could get away with it but you pull it off seamlessly. What they call in the blogs ‘killer dialogue’. Killer is such a great word, and it’s got all these rockabilly resonances. Jerry Lee Lewis was called ‘Killer’, not because he shot his bass player in the chest with a .357 Magnum, which he did, but because he called everyone whose name he didn’t know ‘killer’, like ‘mate’. Old North Louisiana term for guys from the same part of the country, kind of term of blood affiliation. Which is interesting, because all the main characters seem to have been in the notorious MK Quatro camp in Angola at one time or another… We’ll get back to this.
I digress, and I’m supposed to be asking questions. Right. A comment on Messers McCarthy and Leonard if you please, and your killer title, before we delve into the guts of the Country.
MN: To be honest the tag to Cormac McCarthy puzzles me. McCarthy has a thing about the Devil and he pops up in most of the novels, most awkwardly and stereotypically as Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. Don’t get me wrong Chigurh doesn’t completely collapse the book, but he brings it pretty damn close to nonsense. Doesn’t mean there aren’t some great passages in the novel but the movie was probably better. McCarthy’s not a crime novelist, he’s a serious dude with a serious agenda and no ways is No Country for Old Men a krimi. So at that level I don’t get the connection.
And yes his country is more the badlands of JM than of mine. And here comes the interesting conundrum connected to Anthony Egan’s suggestion in the M&G that the crime novel could be the new political novel. Recently Ian Rankin was going on about how crime novelists are tackling the big moral questions as serious fiction does, yet the krimi is not taken seriously. Egan’s proposition that perhaps crime fiction locally is morphing into the new political novel implies that crime fiction be taken more seriously. I reckon it’s too early to tell if he’s write about the political angle, even though there are ‘political’ issues addressed in many of the recent batch of krimis – Deon Meyer, Wessel Ebersohn, Sarah Lotz, Andrew Gray especially – as they were by James McClure before them. Personally I find the current political situation wildly entertaining and ripe for satire. And what is the crime novel if not satirical? So, yes, I’m going to use this material but the purpose is to send it up, and set it up. Political novelist? No ways, Jose.
Now for the Elmore Leonard tag. Leonard is without doubt the funniest crime novelist around. Sure there’s Carl Haaisen but he’s pushing an agenda whereas Leonard seems to be in it for the sheer fun and thrill of writing great sentences. How’s this: ‘Rosen watched her walk past the cafe, liked her thin legs, her high can, her sensible breasts.’ Magic stuff. And funny. His books tackle all the high-minded subjects but you just love the characters – the women particularly are helluva sexy – and they talk to one another in the most amazing way. In fact Out of Sight is my favourite love story of all time. Leonard’s books are cool. And cool is the essence of the good krimi. So, yes, he has been a huge help. It’s what I call serious flippancy. Or flippant seriousness. Take your pick.
Now for the title. The title was a bonus. Thank you Jo Ractliffe. Jo’s a wonderful artist with a completely original take on the world. When I first saw her Nadir series with the dogs back in the mid-1980s I was knocked out. A common landscape. Then our paths crossed and over the years Jo and I have done some projects together one of which resulted in the donkey hunt scene in Killer Country. Anyhow, somewhere round about October of 2005, over a long and liquid lunch Jo hauled out three CDs of country rock music she’d been listening to. ‘Hear this,’ she said, slipping the contraband under the table in time-honoured fashion. The CDs she’d named ‘Killer Country’ and had done special covers using her photographs. The subheads on the discs read intriguingly: (1) Driving the dark heart of country into love, madness and murder; (2) More mad sad bad songs and other maudlin cowboy tunes; and (3) Motel songs for long dark nights and other bad deeds.
Anyhow, a couple of days later I got round to listening to the tracks and thought, no ways this isn’t my kind of music. It’s soppy and it’s sentimental and it’s awful. At the time I was wrapping up Payback and was firmly convinced that the sound track to crime fiction was the blues. But because I knew that Jo would want a response and wouldn’t take ‘I don’t like it’ for an answer, I had a relisten. And then another. And another. And then I was hooked.
Here was the country of raw emotion – that situation called ‘the human condition’ – where things get a tad hectic when it’s too hot or too much drink’s gone down or there’s too much herb in the air, or everything’s simply too much because there’s been cheating and lying and broken hearts and true love that’s gone bad. Which is to say this music isn’t all that far removed from the blues anyhow.
So as soon as I heard the music I was away with a sound track and an idea for another Mace Bishop and Pylon Buso novel when up popped Spitz, the country rock aficionado. He also happened to be a hitman but that added to the mix. Spitz was about not living in Soweto, but Melrose Arch, and he fancied drinking cappuccinos at JBs. Apart from his taste in music he was also a movie junkie – everything a good hitman should be.
Only thing left to negotiate was the title. The title of Jo’s compilations was a nice pun – and I’ve always had a weakness for a fine pun. And because Jo’s a good friend, she let me snitch it. Seems I’m turning into a thief.
JM: No, you’re right, no Chiqurh in Killer Country. But there is a horned man. In a wonderfully claustrophobic passage, Christa sitting on a krantz ‘that was without birdsong’ – almost biblical, that – sees a man with horns watching them. Mace doesn’t see him. After the shooting, Mace returns to the farm, gets spooked, ‘the birds quiet again’, and he sees the horned man staring at him. And then ‘the spectre was gone’. Strange stuff for a krimi, hey? What are we to make of this? The spirit of the land? Mace’s guardian spirit? Why ‘no birdsong’?
MN: Probably more spirit of the land than Mace’s guardian. There was no birdsong in the prison scene that started the book, and no birdsong again: tense moments I guess. The horned man has two origins: one is that magnificent sculpture by Jane Alexander, ‘The Butcher Boys’, (in the National Gallery in Cape Town), and the other is a Bushman rock painting on page 176 of Images of Power by David Lewis-Williams and Thomas Dowson.
In writing the scene it was an image something like this that I imagined Christa (Mace’s daughter) and Mace had gone to look at on the wall of the overhang. As for strange stuff in a krimi, you’re right, it is. But I couldn’t resist it. After all Alexander’s boys are also a hit squad – originally no doubt part of the Third Force, but nowadays I’m sure they’re freelance. Because Killer Country is about land and dispossession and repossession and as the first to be dispossessed were the Bushmen I felt they should be on hand at this stage in the book. And then, although this is far from vital knowledge to a reading of Killer Country, years ago I wrote a novel called Horseman about a nineteenth century hit squad loose on the land. Bushman paintings and horned spectres featured on that landscape too. Anyhow the horsemen rode out of the desert through the diamond fields to the gold mines and beyond. Although their number has thinned out in Killer Country their ride continues in a reversal of colonial expansion as the killers head from Jozi to the Mothercity. These are the sort of games writers play now and again.
JM: There are other little interludes slipped into the novel, like doodles in the margin, that almost but not quite slip out of the memory of the book because they are not part of the main story line. The one I particularly like is Vittoria’s shootout with the ‘big lesbo bitch’. Classic. Two pages, tie up a loose end, the writing spectacularly graphic, but the event has very little to do with the current action. How do you think of these marginalia that do so much to make the novel memorable though they don’t drive the plot forward, really?
MN: Absolutely right, they’ve got nothing to do with the plot. But my feeling is that plot isn’t everything. Sure it’s the engine driving the story and it has to drive it hard and fast. But speed leaves everything a blur and sometimes you need to stop to leave an image that may only tangentially relate to the story and its plot. That said, as you know, one of the stories that was left dangling at the end of Payback was that of Paulo and Vittoria. Had the book been a stand-alone that would have been fine, but with the idea of the trilogy there was an opportunity to tie up loose ends. So Paulo’s death in prison actually kicks off Killer Country although it has nothing to do with the plot of Killer Country. But it provided an excellent way to kickstart the book and you’re left with the ‘what the heck was that all about?’ question at the end of the chapter. Of course the question doesn’t get answered for a long time (call it a tension device). Actually it doesn’t get answered until after Vittoria’s shootout with her warders when Captain Gonz eventually tells Mace not to worry about the case anymore. (There were allegations of torture about to be made against him by Paulo and Vittoria). All this is by the by stuff but I hope it serves to give the reader a little rush.
JM: OK, we have to get to the land sometime, literal, figurative and spiritual. But let’s have a look at some of the characters first on this fine Sunday morning, post Terreblanche as it were. Can I ask a cluster of questions and you unravel as you will? Here are puzzling things to this innocent reader.
First, the main character Mace. You really do seem to relish putting him through the wringer. He gets kidnapped and beaten up in the first book, now he gets mugged and shot. In fact, as a security man he’s pretty inept all round – three people are shot directly on his watch, all fatally (old Judge Visser and his wife Salome, and Rudi Klett), he gets mugged by a bergie in his own driveway, and he lets his wife… well, we’ll let reader’s find that out for themselves. What all this amounts to verges on negligence – unless the forces of evil are so stacked up that, like a Greek chorus, he is forced into the role of helpless bystander. But a bystander with a physique powerful enough that his nemesis keeps pictures of him, to drool over (and we’ll get to her, oh yes). Is this a new kind of non-hero? Elmore Leonard’s heroes are a bit more effective than that.
And finally for this round: the truly singular Spitz. It’s all very well saying he’s named after the shoe chain, but they are Italian, and the Italian connection seems to have got left behind in the first book. Spitz not only doesn’t look like a Soweto hit man, which he is, he likes all things German – pork sausages, white beer. He’s got German intonation, and even at one point says, ‘Nein, donner’. And he likes Swiss shoes, Bally moccasins, which Manga calls ‘moegoe shoes’. Spitz likes Bally? Very funny! But he likes American music and American movies; in fact he is a connoisseur of both. Be great to find out what else he’s into, especially as you’ve developed this boy in such loving detail. So, tell us a bit about Mace, and the enigmatic Spitz–the–Trigger, who are strangely alike, after all…
MN: Okay, Mace. Here’s how I see him. He’s had a successful career as an arms trader/gun runner and has lots of money squirreled away on the Cayman Islands. He is married to a beautiful woman, he has a beautiful daughter both of whom he loves dearly. He has a smashing house in a prime location in an extraordinary city. He has a legitimate business, and although both he and Pylon don’t believe it is the greatest career choice, it does provide an income while they figure out ways to bring in their arms trading loot.
That said, let’s bring in the Greeks, in particular Aristotle’s idea of tragedy, which, more or less, was about charting the downfall of an individual because of past behaviour. All very moral. And some of that may be happening here and it may not. Certainly Mace’s life isn’t working for him. In fact his destiny and the very city he lives in seem to be against him. So in that respect he is – as you call him – ‘a non-hero’ – which is a better description than anti-hero if only because in ‘anti’ there is some form of action.
Mace is an action man but to what end? In addition Mace is operating in a revenge tragedy where, convention has it, so much gets smashed up. Ever since I read the revenge plays of the Elizabethan playwrights – Webster, Tournier, Kyd et al – I was hooked. Here was the way I understood life. Of course with the Elizabethan revenge tragedy comes plenty of blood, horrific violence, sensational events, ghosts, and a bloodthirsty climax. What more could you ask for? When, many years later, a friend gave me a copy of the Icelandic saga, Nyal’s Saga, where constant cycles of revenge lay waste to individuals and families, I thought, yeah, now we’re cooking with gas. Hence Mace.
Now for Spitz. Although there is not really anything I can add to him. Everything went onto the page. However. First off, yes, Spitz isn’t a great many removes from Mace. They both have spent a large part of their lives out of the country. Spitz was an East German trained hitman operating in Europe for MK (although this is only indirectly alluded to in his backstory, you have to piece it together). As you mention his time outside has added some strange details to his character. I see him as an all round kind of guy. Your well equipped, self sufficient hitman. He does have a thing for Sheemina February, but then that’s entirely understandable. Really there’s not a helluva lot more to Spitz. Except to say that maybe he was blinded by his infatuation and got led astray.
JM: Hmm, not an unfamiliar story, a well intentioned hitman with taste. Indeed, around whose taste not only the songs on the iPod depend, but whose taste leads first Pylon, then Mace, then Mace again by the nose, and finally us – who hasn’t gone sniffing through that play list? Hey, I didn’t know about Matt Ward, absolutely killer. I digress. Country music and country country seem to slide into one another at points. As Pylon says listening to the thingy, ‘This was familiar territory’. Familiar territory is good. No connection to territory is bad. Hence Telman Visser: ‘That was Telman’s problem: no contact with the land’. Old man Visser, advocate Niemand the deed keeper, Mace, Obed, Pylon in a way, all connected to the land. Telman, Sheemina, and Spitz, all free floating. And Telman is really one sorry dude; I think you paint him in the most unsympathetic colours – except you give him good taste in pictures. What a repulsive creep, he almost sounds real. He seems to get your scorn as others don’t. Why is that?
MN: Not sure why, Joe. I’ve had one or two minor brushes with legal types (haven’t we all) where their posturing always seems to me to be designed to aggravate the situation rather than sort it out. I don’t know any judges although the stories I’ve heard about the hanging judges and of the shenanigans of some of the new judges who’ve taken with indecent haste to such dubious activities (you know the hunting, fishing, shagging expeditions) doesn’t make them endearing characters. In Telman I wanted a complete slimeball with no redeeming features so that in comparison he would make some of the other slimeballs look angelic. And, yes, Telman, Sheemina and Spitz aren’t rooted and that’s a problem for me. It’s one of the reasons why Mace wants to and does drive Christa across the Karoo to the farm. The land thing again. Smelling the dust.
JM: I have to ask you about Oumou. I cannot recall a novel where one of the most sympathetic characters in the series – she makes it easily into the second volume – has such a rough ride. Good grief! Is she another silent witness marked out for the blind vagaries of fate? What are you saying about this African saint with the sublime pottery and tolerant demeanour? You know what you’ve opened the door to now, don’t you?
MN: The Oumou episode was one of the most difficult I’ve ever written. I agonised over it for a long time. Some of those who read the manuscript suggested I change it. When the book was published a friend phoned late one Saturday night to ask me how I could have done that? Another told me she put the book aside and could only take it up a couple of days later when she’d plucked up the courage to continue reading. A third SMSed two words: You bastard. It wasn’t an easy scene to handle but I felt it had to be done, and, yes, I know I’ve opened the door to a range of interpretations, which I can’t really go into here without a huge spoiler alert. But the Oumou question does open the doors to a range of issues, and I suppose some of this has come through in the reviews. On the other hand it is just a crime novel and hectic things happen in crime novels.
JM: Okay, so that brisk round wanted to know about Telman and Oumou, two less likely characters it’s impossible to imagine, yet both play a vital role in Killer Country. I take it that we shouldn’t read anything into their lack of enthusiasm for country music?
MN: I don’t think so, no.
JM: Let’s change the subject for a while. Cars. Driving. You do the two things equally well, city roads and country roads. Leaning through the curves in Hospital Bend with the Spider is a trip, but so is driving through the Karoo, both day and night, sound track the same, ‘It’s gotta be country music, any ole’ way you choose it …’ You know your country and its cities, but that seems de rigueur in a proper crime novel. More interestingly, we have Mace’s red Alfa Spider, Manga’s white Beemer G-string, Pylon’s black Merc, Henk & Olivia’s dark blue Saab, and the lovely ladies Lindiwe and Sheemina both have an SUV. Pretty cool. The Spider seems suited to the city, but what goes well across the Karoo? Christa says at one point, ‘We should have had a 4X4, Papa’. This attention to detail, it’s like painting a big canvas (we could talk about Manga’s Black Label, Spitz’s Stella, Sheemina’s sav blanc). Do the details like that just come to you, as you imagine the characters? Or do you construct the characters with the details?
MN: The short answer is that the characters come first – often from out of nowhere. Mace Bishop – certainly as a name – came during a sojourn on the Greek island of Naxos many many years ago and lay dormant for almost two decades. Pylon sprung to mind when I needed a gunrunning partner for Mace. You know that joke about naming the child after the first thing you see after its birth. Well, the first thing Pylon’s mom saw was, you guessed it, pylons. The power that bypassed the village. All this was in an early version of Payback but never made it explicitly to the finals. Spitz sprang straight out of the country rock music, boots and all. So the characters come first but then they have to do things like drive cars, drink beer, wear Speedos, whatever. It now becomes a matter of what detail is going to match the character, in other words it’s a value-add to the character.
Mace needed a different sort of car but not the latest model. Hence the red Alfa Spider – a 1969 model – and the story of his infatuation with that car is told in Payback. Only thing, the Spider is a rubbish car when it comes to reliability. But I wanted it to go like a dream, at least for the first two books. Which it does. Also the Spider suits Mace’s style: a bit flashy but in a romantic way. Solid Pylon demanded a solid car, hence the company owned and rather large Merc. Apart from that Pylon can’t see the point in owning his own car when he can use the company’s so he’s more or less going to drive whatever is available. Likewise the insistent Sheemina only felt right behind the wheel of a huge SUV. The lady had to be in control.
But to get to the essence of your question: how did I hit on the red Spider? I’m not sure. I’ve never owned one although once I had a red MG and maybe that has morphed into the Spider. So the answer is that the details come to one. However, I think when you’re in the terrain of realism – a broad term, I realise, but the crime novel seems to belong in this category – then you need to draw heavily on ordinary details. Cars have to be specific. A sentence like, ‘Mace got into his car’ – is not going to cut it. Readers need exact information, their imaginations need something to work on. And, of course, if you don’t get the reader’s imagination working then your story fails to take life.
JM: … the ‘story fails to take life’: a killer phrase, if I may say so…
One last round then, for the road. We had to get to her sooner or later, the bitch goddess Sheemina. I am not surprised that readers have reacted so viscerally to the Oumou issue, because she is, certainly, if not your most real female character then your most sympathetic. (Well, there’s Christa too but she’s already been through the wringer and we readers felt sure she’d at least make it into the last book.) But there’s Oumou, a flesh and blood character, who, well, let’s not go there. And there’s Sheemina, in many ways a waxen effigy of menace, an unreal Greek goddess type who sports and toys with weak humans at will, or so it seems. By the end of Killer Country, it is almost incidental that she had her hand smashed by Mace back then; her reaction so far has been so disproportionate, that her alibi has become insignificant. She does not even have the desires of a Greek goddess, so far no sex life we can see (Mo Siq doesn’t count). Most everyone else in the book has got one, even the repulsive Telman, and Spitz tries, shame he tries, and all he gets is a blowjob from the prossie Cherildeen; and readers sense that Christa is going to grow into desirable womanhood in the next instalment. No, Sheemina dreams of dancing with Mace, that’s all. If she manages to get Mace onto the dance floor in book three, I’m afraid I won’t be able to protect you from your female readers. What we know is that this has to be showdown time: ‘The day was coming, he knew: the day of reckoning’. Our Man Mace and the almost superhuman bitch. Something really strange here; the reluctant non-hero and the bride of Frankenstein. Now, you can’t let the cat out of the bag, but reflect for us a little on how this character has developed over the two books. Was that how you envisaged her when you started out, something of an S&M dominatrix, and if not, did she just get away from you as the story unfolded? What does the author see, standing outside the glass door of her patio, watching as she stands barefoot on her flokati rug, sipping chilled sauvignon blanc, looking out to sea, dreaming of Mace?
MN: There was a moment in Payback when Sheemina February walks up the concrete stairs to Matthew Hartnell’s squalid office and you hear the clip of her heels. That was my first – quite literally – my first sense of Sheemina. And then she comes into the room and she’s wearing a silk trouser suit, fingernails like drops of blood, her left hand in a glove, plum lipstick, eyes ice blue – and that was her. When she talked she was confident, in control. Sharp. I’ve often wondered about that moment (technically when we first met), because right there and then I didn’t know why her hand was in a black glove, just as I didn’t know that she and Mace had a past. But as the ensuing conversation progressed so the tension between Sheemina and Mace started and I began to ‘know’ their backstory. Sounds all very airy-fairy I realise but sometimes this is how it happens. Certainly at that stage Sheemina wasn’t ‘something of an S&M dominatrix’ – not that she ever becomes that in the literal sense. In fact at the time I thought their ‘relationship’ was fairly straight forward – at least from her perspective. He’d hurt her and now she was going to hurt him. But then as Payback developed I began to think there was something Sheemina was hiding. That maybe her feelings towards Mace were somewhat more complex than they seemed on the surface.
It is this more complex emotion which starts to dominate Sheemina in Killer Country. Does she want revenge? What sort of revenge does she want? She has stalked him before – after all in Payback she bought his house – but now she stalks the family. She takes photographs of them surreptitiously, which she’s been doing of Mace in his Speedo at the gym swimming pool but now she’s photographing the three of them, Mace, Oumou, Christa. And from somewhere in this darkness that shades her soul she comes up with another form of revenge. One that does not involve killing Mace but one that will cause him considerable pain. One that she hopes will destroy him in another way. Of course by now she is out to wreck everything for Mace. Destroy his business. Destroy his friendships. Destroy his family.
It was at this point, I think, that I realised things weren’t over between Sheemina and Mace. Killer Country was suddenly the middle passage – albeit a turbulent middle passage – and I realised it would end with matters between them unresolved. Sheemina February are the last two words of Killer Country, and the third in the trilogy, Black Heart, opens with her. So to get back to your question, Sheemina grew for me during Payback and then deepened during Killer Country. Also in Killer Country we see more of how she operates in the city, of her sphere of influence, and, yes, of her ruthlessness. I wanted to create the impression that Sheemina February was at home in this city of Cape Town, that she could work the system. And, she does. By the end of the novel she is a very wealthy woman. Against this background I hope readers will find that she becomes even more unsettling in Black Heart.
JM: There are so many delights in this book – Manga shooting the donkeys, the same Manga who can joke to Spitz, ‘Don’t shoot any nurses, we need them’. And so on. For all those readers out there to discover, a world of nail-biting, heart stopping pleasure. Until the next one.
JM: I have to say I found it very difficult to get a firm grip on the book, which is to say, I’ve waited for it to resolve into some kind of prospect for the future – you know, some major chords to tell the children it’s all right after all, what Jazzy Mackenzie called the author’s contract with the reader, but in vain. I’ve puzzled over this for some time, and come to the conclusion it’s because the book flouts so many expectations the ordinary reader brings to a crime thriller.
I’ll get round to some of those in a moment, but I first want to comment on the mood of the book which is unrelievedly black. There is a pervasive miasma of menace hanging like a dark cloud over the entire narrative. You keep expecting it to lift, but it never does. Even when Mace reflects near the end, ‘Suddenly seemed the darkness had gone’ I didn’t feel one whit reassured. Mart was still out there, running the show for one thing, and behind him, shadowy corridors of government. His nemesis, she with the eponymous ‘black heart’, comes closer to the mark a bit earlier: ‘His business reputation ruined. His buried treasure confiscated. The bank after his house. His daughter traumatised. Couldn’t have turned out better’. That’s not even to mention his murdered wife and all those protectees killed in his care. Oh, and all three members of Complete Security shot.
I hope I’m not giving too much away here, but that’s but the half of it. Did ever more shit happen to a nicer guy? The mood comes close to Polanski’s brilliant evocation in Chinatown‘. Here it’s every bit as brilliant, but black, black, black, as the song says. African noir.
In the earlier books the darkness edged into black comedy every now and again, but not here. And no prospect of a sequel. Is there?
So first question: tell us about the black. Were you going to end up here from the start? Did the story just drift this way? You’re not making a political (with a small ‘p’) statement by any chance?
MN: From the start – if the start is Payback – then this ending was certainly not in sight. In fact at the end of Payback there was no trilogy in sight. At the end of the second book, Killer Country, I thought the Mace Bishop/Sheemina February story needed a resolution and as Mace was in mourning along came the black of Black Heart. So it would probably be fair to say that the story drifted this way.
As for making a political statement, well, that depends on how your read the novel. I’ve always felt that crime fiction does two things simultaneously: it can be escapist reading and political commentary, you get out of it whatever you want.
And this seems to be how the book has been received. There are readers who want the story or rather the pace of the story and nothing else. Their comments range from: ‘loved it’ to ‘couldn’t put it down’ and ‘great ending’.
Then there are others who say it’s ‘bleak’. It’s been called that in a number of reviews and I reckon that what this boils down to is that if ‘bleak’ or ‘black’ is your perception of this novel, then that is related to your understanding of our society. A reading of our politics.
Which, I know, is to throw everything on to the reader, but that’s what I like about crime fiction.
And, yes, I was making a political statement: I have become pissed off with our grubby politics and politicians.
Something I do want to add is that I’ve noticed that some interviewers find it easier talking about demented characters than about demented societies. For instance, Hannibal is a scary character but he is just one person so when you’ve finished the book you’re finished with him. It’s easy to talk about this dark character because the darkness is contained by the character. But if you write a book where the darkness passes through the character into the outer world, then there are some people who shy away simply because when you’ve finished the book, the situation it deals with is still there. To ward this off some interviewers take refuge in the humour – such as it is. I was told by one very recently that the humour meant the book was laconic, almost tongue-in-cheek. This apparently levered it out of the darkness.
JM: Right, that’s what I thought (about it being political): in fact, it’s the most unflinchingly political SA novel I’ve read recently – no-one is spared, no-one gets out of it well, with the single possible exception of the hen-pecking paragon Treasure, who shows that sensible, no-nonsense commonsense still gets you some ways in the morally poisoned landscape where crime and politics meet. About the other: I wouldn’t call it bleak, and ‘black’ doesn’t rule out ‘couldn’t put it down’. We should be clear that this book is unputdownable, plot-wise, but radically disturbing on a number of other levels. No-one can read the account of the demise of Veronica Dinsmor with relish, read that line “‘My name is Dancing Rabbit’, she said” without pause. I had to go for a walk in the garden. To top it all, our Author imbued her with the same kind of transcendent intuitiveness that Oumou displayed in Killer Country, she’s the point at which the evil casualness of the killing is brought most forcefully home. That’s my kind of political statement – which makes for unnerving but compulsive reading.
But back to ‘black’. In this book, ‘black’ is not only a mood, it’s a motif. ‘Paint it Black’ is such a great soundtrack for the whole black style of the narrative, never mind that Mace has slightly changed his music taste between books. And Sheemina has a red door, and red rosebuds, but purple lips, and in the beginning has blonde hair (‘white angel with all the blonde hair’). So, a definite colour scheme to go with the sound track, and one overlaid with black/noir. How do you think about colour and plot? And why do the baddies get the best songs/cultural references? (Giving Oosthuizen James Ellroy seems verging on perverse…)
MN: I like that, verging on perverse. And I suppose that is one of the strategies of crime fiction: to focus on the perverse to bring the subject into greater clarity. To have had Oosthuizen and his colleague Max Roland reading any other crime novelist – possibly with the exception of George Pelecanos – would have been too easy, it would have reduced the reading to escapism. With Ellroy, as with Pelecanos, you’re dealing with social and political elements that go beyond crime fiction. You’re also of course reading writers who foreground style – the sound of the sentences – which to me is very important. So by having the morally corrupt read this sort of book I thought showed an interesting side to the character. Alternatively it could be my perversity, an innate desire to make things not quite what they seem. In other words a shade of grey.
Which brings us back to colour. Strangely enough this is probably the only book I’ve written where I knew the title from the get-go. And knew it because for some ‘perverse’ reason I’d gone from the music of Killer Country to that Rolling Stones number. The more I listened to it, the more I read the lyrics, the more it began to shape the story. As you know it’s where Sheemina’s red door comes from. Of course that tied in with the red rosebuds, which have been a motif throughout. Then Sheemina’s apartment had always been white and so to have her go about in disguise (blonde) for a while became an extension of that colour scheme and a contrast to the black colour motif. Again a perverse contrast given her agenda which is far from white, if we read white in the classical Western sense as purity.
It always fascinates me the way movie photographers select a colour palette and I suppose writers do the same, to a greater or lesser extent. But once you’ve got a colour in the title, you’re more or less set on using colour(s) as a device. However, all this sounds a little deliberate. I wish I could say that it is but it honestly isn’t. It’s part of that swirl of elements that tear around the writing of a novel – a bit like the way dust and twigs and wool get sucked up into a Karoo dust devil that then sweeps across the veld. In other words it might start off being an arbitrary idea but becomes the essence of the writing.
Or an essence of the plot. I suppose crime fiction plots are by their nature dark, even if there is light at the end. So, happenstance, again, dark and black. In the end this combination of plot and colour was an attempt to give the book a resonance that I hoped added something to the story.
But I haven’t answered the question about why the baddies get the best songs? Let’s call it redemption.
JM: That gives a new slant to ‘redemption songs’ but let me not get sidetracked here. You say you like ‘a shade of grey’ in depicting character, but I’m not so sure. Let’s cut to our gloriously inept main man, the unfortunate Mace. Has there ever been such a luckless main character in a crime novel? Even Reginald Hill’s Joe Sixsmith works things out in the end. Not Mace. In a book where most characters get clipped, dipped, ripped, snipped or at least winged, Mace’s misfortunes go one better. He loses the Italians, then the German, and in this book, the Redskins. Its barely credible he still gets any new business. By pg 65 he begins to feel sorry for himself: ‘Mace thought, lovely. A wrecked car. A kidnap. A weird redskin … How grand was his life?’ Tough luck, bud, the shit has hardly begun. And to cap it all, the sadistic Author kills his beloved Alfa on the last page. And he loses his house. Nothing else can go wrong: everything conceivable’s gone west. Let the Critic issue a tongue in cheek challenge to the Author: write a sequel, I dare you, and see if he can clamber out from deepest under.
It’s the ineptness, though, rather than the bad karma that is so striking. It’s simply not in the contract that the main man fails at everything, no hint of grey about this. I’ve been pondering whether the contract with the krimi reader necessarily involves some kind of light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s true that the would-be revenger gets her comeuppance, but not because of Mace, in fact despite him. Our boytjie gets rescued by someone perhaps even more dastardly than the ‘black heart’ that finally gets to having its beating stopped. He can’t even outflank his nemesis. So, no light at the end, just more layers of dark, which I guess is pretty well how it is, but no light for Mace either. ‘Suddenly seemed the darkness had gone’ opines our Mace on pg 332. No chance. It’s not dark yet but it’s getting there…
So what keeps us reading in the footsteps of Mace, so to speak? Two possible reasons occur to me. The first, because we want to see how the subterranean sexual current between Sheemina and Mace plays out. To bolster this notion, a certain tension in the reading slackens when she gets her wings trimmed. But we carry on reading because – well because, despite his dogged ineptitude, Mace is a ‘good guy’, a noble soul, on the side of the angels. Ah, I can hear the Author say, not so, lots of grey to Mace too. But really, the reader is drawn on because Mace at least represents the light, even if he can’t achieve much in bringing it about like ninety per cent of the main characters in krimis manage to do. He carries our hopes even as he keeps letting them down. I have to say this is a unique way with the krimi lead character. Is there a question here? It would be perhaps whether the Author was consciously breaking the mould, or whether events just drifted this way.
And as for that cache of diamonds and stash in the Caymans that he can’t seem to do anything about. Is that just Mace being lame again? I mean, if Christo Wiese can try a walk-in with a couple of million in his carry-on luggage, our intrepid can surely manage something similar? Come on, we want to see Mace at least give it a go, get something right … Or not?
MN: The krimi conventions are one of the reasons I like writing this stuff. They focus the mind, and one has to be mindful of them. But at the same time they can be testing. So while I am aware of the contract with the reader, I am also aware of a contract with the story, and the tension comes in the tug of war between both demands.
Convention was a major concern for me with Black Heart. The story took Mace down. As you put it, everything he possesses has gone West and in this I had broken one of the conventions. This left me having to twist the story unconvincingly if I were to fulfil the krimi contract with a conventional ending. So I decided not to. Or rather I decided that there was one thing I could do something about and that was the relationship between Mace and his daughter Christa. By dealing with this I could perhaps at least tug my forelock to the character convention and the ending convention.
But to do this I would have to venture onto dangerous ground, the dangerous ground called sentimentality. It seems to me that the sentimental has become almost a signature ending for the SA krimi. So this had to be avoided too. Hence the fate of the poor Alfa Spider.
At Franschhoek Literary Festival a member of the audience (Liz Fletcher) asked the crime fiction panellists (Jassy Mackenzie, Sarah Lotz, Sifiso Mzobe) why they didn’t break the convention of the ‘happy ending’, given that in South Africa’s reality very little gets resolved and we’re a fractured, dysfunctional society. The panellists answered by saying they were being true to their stories, however, all their stories had concluded with satisfactory endings at least as far as the reader was concerned, and all the characters behaved as they should. Which means that it’s how you tailor the story that counts.
So here is an issue for the South African crime writer: do you go with conventions or do you do something else? Thus far most of us have stuck to the conventions but this worries me and I was trying to find a way out that did both things: suggested continuing unease and yet restored some sense of order.
As for bringing Mace back, I have to admit that while I was reading the proofs of Black Heart, I did think, You’re not done here. There is more that has to be dealt with. And so, yes.
JM: Let’s talk about the women. Or The Woman. Sheemina. In the grip of a ‘blood feud’ (295) with luckless but well-built Mace, where she didn’t know whether she wanted to ‘screw him or kill him’ (241). Well, this is a little off the course set in Payback, although it does suggest what the ‘something else’ might be that is referred to in the Payback cover teaser ‘revenge is never enough’. Right. Seems these two are locked in a mutual death/lust dance. He hates her (‘wop wop … Got yer, bitch’) but steals her nightie from under her pillow (imagine if Christa had got wind of that little indulgence …) and he wants to take her red door to the max; she sends him red rosebuds, by proxy some of the time as it turns out, got a picture of him in his Speedo, her ‘white angel (317)’. ‘Two lovebirds’, as the efficient Mart Velaze says. Mustn’t give away everything. But this is Grand Guignol of a high order. Joyce Carol Oates opines that American noir in its soul is ‘salaciously self-serving’. Which doesn’t mean to say the bar can’t be raised.
Enough of the glistening purple lips. The fact is, despite a trilogy-long tease, Sheemina the all-powerful She Who Must be Avenged, is no more successful than our limping Mace. Two beautiful losers. I’ll bet the farm that’s not where the Author’s plot started out. Here’s another mould-breaker: the revenge trilogy leaves the thirst for revenge – though not the lust, apparently – quite unslaked. And yet the tension is not broken by the end – an undertow of anxiety snakes on about Mace, Christa, never mind Treasure and Pylon and Pummie, and of course some unfinished business with the tight-tailed Tami … The Author had us thinking it’s all about revenge, but when the revenge fizzles, we’re still left with an uneasy attachment to these great characters. We can’t let go. The Author is not done here, no.
So are we to conclude that when the chips are down, characterisation and plot will trump convention?
MN: In a word, yes. Although I have to admit I sometimes get confused about whether I’m speaking as a crime novelist who pays obeisance to the genre or a novelist beyond borders. I don’t think there’s anything in the trilogy that wasn’t there in the four books (or in Out to Score) that preceded it. So was it really that much of a shift from novel to crime novel? Not really. The greatest shift was out of the long magic realist sentence into the short pulp realist sentence. That done all else followed, except for when the chips are down character and plot tend to be very demanding. But this is idle speculation…
One other thing regarding Sheemina February. I went back to my notes to find the first mention of her. It occurs after I’d been working (for some two years) on what would become Payback. In April 2005 there’s a note: ‘Sheemina starts stalking Mace.’ Of course at this distance I can read into that anything I like except that ‘stalking’ seems to suggest there was clearly a sex element from the beginning, it’s just that I didn’t know why? Took a bit of time to find out. And, no, you don’t have to bet the farm, the plot didn’t start out with two beautiful losers, actually, it didn’t start out with any losers at all. In fact, as I’ve said before, at the start nothing existed beyond Payback.
JM: OK, a couple of minor puzzles to wrap up with. Mace and Pylon seem petrified they’ll lose their Caymans nest eggs to SARS. But as Mart Velaze says, the fact that no-one’s been actually prosecuted for it seems to escape them. They seemed so street savvy. Are we to infer they are no longer really in touch with contemporary reality? When Tami tells Mace he’s got ‘black blood’ (pg 348), what exactly does she mean? The NIA intrudes more and more. They snatch Max Jacob from the International Tribunal clowns (why? They’ve got the hard drive…), and the ever-present Mart Velaze seems three steps ahead of Mace and Pylon, Sheemina, the lot. This is downright ominous. Do you know something about the NIA we don’t, or is Mart Velaze just lucky?
MN: I think the thing for Mace and Pylon is that SARS represents a type of organisation that seems impenetrable. For them it is a fortress. There is no way in, no one seems corruptible. Of course we know this is not true nowadays but for them back then, the tender days of 2005, that’s how it seemed. SARS was a morally righteous bunch, a bunch impervious to street savvy. So it’s not so much that Mace and Pylon are out of touch with reality, as they are wary and suspicious of SARS. Here is an entity they don’t know how to handle, an entity that can ruin them if they make the wrong move.
As for Tami’s knock off line that Mace has ‘black blood’, well, it’s open to interpretation. It could be literal, but I don’t think that’s really a possibility. It could mean, for instance, that Tami thinks men, black men in particular (a generalisation, but then this’s Tami’s worldview) can be a tad autocratic and that maybe Mace is throwing a heavy.
And yes, the NIA does intrude more and more. Why do they snatch Max Jacob? Well, it’s a Machiavellian conspiracy and it’s got to do with tying up loose ends. When you can get someone else to do your wet work, why get your hands in the gooey stuff? And no, Mart Velaze isn’t lucky, he is three steps ahead. And, yeah, it was meant to be ominous.
JM: Finally, I note that our patient parent Mace (a whole story going on here too) and the wilful Christa are maybe moving to Glencairn, ‘not a bad part of the Peninsula to move to …’ Indeed not. Just down the road from that author bloke, who can keep an eye on them, watch the star-crossed Christa turn into a young woman …
MN: And therein lies a whole ‘nother story.