An interview with Sue Grant-Marshall about the Revenge Trilogy
WE MEET on Friday the 13th, as good a day as any other for a South African crime writer, Mike Nicol assures me. He should know. He’s been described by one of the international masters of the crime genre, John Connolly, as “one of the brightest thriller-writing talents to have emerged in the past decade”.
The genre has been a rewarding one for Nicol — and he’s been good for the genre. Since he recently turned to crime — four of his 17 books are about it — he’s been busy promoting it with crime festivals and a blog linked to many international crime fiction ones.
He’s a gentle man with a wry sense of humour who could easily earn his living as a stand-up comic. He ably demonstrated this hidden talent at the recent Franschhoek Literary Festival, where he had audiences doubled up with laughter. So he’s not the sort you’d imagine would knock off characters with impunity, yet a lot of people die in his books.
“Someone has just accosted me in the street and accused me of plumbing the depths of depravity in Black Heart,” he volunteers with the faintest hint of injury. In Black Heart, the final book in the Revenge Trilogy, the woman who has pulsed darkly through the pages of three books meets her nemesis, Mace Bishop.
Sheemina February is a sensual, exotic beauty. Her fingernails are like drops of blood, her lipstick is plum and her eyes an ice shade of blue. Her left hand, smashed into everlasting deformity by Mace and his closest friend, Pylon Buso, is always sheathed. She draws a black glove over it, in a gesture laced with evil and menace, whenever she leaves her luxury Clifton flat.
All three Revenge novels feature Mace and Pylon, one-time gunrunners and now partners in a protection company, Complete Security.
Both men are married to extraordinarily wonderful women, Mace to Oumou, a gorgeous ceramicist from Mali, and Pylon, who is a Xhosa, to Treasure. Each family has a single daughter, Christa and Pumla. They, too, are best friends.
Mace drives an Alfa Spider, sports a six-pack, and keeps fit by swimming with Christa at the Sea Point pools. There, Sheemina secretively photographs him.
The focus of Nicol’s reader’s outrage is his killing off of Oumou (pronounced Oomoo) in the second novel in the trilogy.
I am surprised that Nicol speaks so openly of this but he points out that many of his readers don’t seem to mind the sequence in which they read his crime novels.
In Black Heart, Sheemina continues to stalk Mace in a lust for revenge that’s tinged with sexual overtones. The book opens with her watching him on CCTV as he prowls through her flat, noting the box of cut-throat razors that had once shaved famous men.
It’s mounted above her desk. There’s an empty space for a missing razor.
Mace sees the photograph of him that Sheemina has taken, “that strong body dripping water, that small costume”, on her bedroom table.
Business transactions form a backdrop to this final trilogy novel, as they do in the others. An American couple wants to develop casinos in SA ’s rural areas, the way they’ve been doing in the US ’s reservations. But xenophobic South Africans do not want “outside” money muscling into their territory. So, shortly after Mace and Pylon fetch the couple from Cape Town International Airport there’s a shoot-out. Someone dies. Someone is kidnapped.
Pylon takes a bullet and their business takes strain. Mace has a lot to deal with. He’s struggling with his grief-stricken teenager, who has decided she hates him and has taken to slashing herself. Now, he’s forced to operate alone. SA ’s secret service wants Mace to steal the weapons system of his only other client. The last straw is a Cape Times reporter, who describes Mace’s company, with some justification, as incompetent. It is indeed, as the first novel trumpeted, payback time for Mace.
Nicol has come a long way since his first magic realism novel, The Powers That Be, written in the early 1990s. It’s a story of myth and magic, fact and fiction.
“It was a way of telling stories about SA that were remote from the straight realism of Nadine Gordimer. The 1990s were an odd period for South African writers, the old story had gone, the new was not yet visible, and we were in the honeymoon Mandela period.”
A few magic realism books on, Nicol became disenchanted with it. He was in limbo when his wife Jill suggested he read crime fiction: “Crime kind of happened to me,” he comments laconically. Nicol soon realised the possibility of the social critique that can accompany a crime novel and uses it to good effect in his Payback trilogy.
In Killer Country, he places characters in the development of a golf estate, a theme set against the backdrop of land acquisition in SA . One of the black characters queries why he has to pay for land: “It belonged to my forefathers. I am just taking it back.”
It also deals with municipal corruption. Politicisation of his crime novels was a conscious decision: “Politics has always been at the back of my poetry and fiction. It’s not new.”
So he was pleased when reviewers of Killer Country and now of Black Heart described them as political novels. He points out that bestselling crime writer Ian Rankin uses his books to explore the margins of society: “Crime novels are becoming a useful measure of society and South African ones are particularly good at it.”
But while he’s happy to be seen in political novel country, “I want my books to sell in airports and be read on beaches. The politics in them are not meant to put people off reading them.”
Nicol is referring to the way in which “apartheid books were written. You read them and felt ashamed, guilty, sensed that you’d taken a lash to your back.”
Initially, he experienced resistance to his move into crime because, as a country, we experience so much of it — “But, as I keep explaining, they are crime novels, a genre in which writers follow a convention that ensures the books all end well.”
Moving to crime has necessitated a change in what he calls his writing rhythm.
He’s moved from multiple syllables to words with short sounds. In so doing he’s reduced the lexicon of his books from 30000 words to about 5000. His challenge is to make the few words left to him sound different each time they appear.
He relies on the sound paragraphs make to determine whether his writing is working: “This requires short, one-syllable action words such as ‘get, take, make’.” He wouldn’t mind one-word sentences. “This is how you amuse yourself during a writing day.”
Recently, a bookstand at Bristol airport in the UK, filled with Nicol’s books, shrieked “Move Over Ian Rankin!”
He doubts Rankin is losing any sleep over it.