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Mike Nicol

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

An interview with William Saunderson-Meyer about the Revenge Trilogy

This interview first appeared here in the Sunday Times

Mike Nicol’s crime novels are an unapologetic reflection of South Africa today, writes William Saunderson-Meyer

The final instalment of Mike Nicol’s Revenge trilogy – featuring those felicitously named security operatives Mace and Pylon and their nemesis, the deliciously evil Sheemina February – hits the bookshelves on this month.

Black Heart completes a series that started with Payback, followed by Killer Country, taking up the tale with Mace Bishop, a walking basket case. His family is in tatters, home loan payments are in arrears, daughter Christa is depressed and self-mutilating, and his firm is faltering. Even Mace’s cherished drop-top, the Alfa Spider, appears to be in extremis.

While Mace is psychologically battered, Pylon Busu has been wounded during a guarding job gone wrong. He is, in any case, emotionally AWOL. High-maintenance wife Treasure is having a baby and hard man Pylon proves to be putty in her demanding hands, which means Mace has to rely on Tami, the receptionist, for back-up.

There is the nest egg that Mace and Pylon salted away during the struggle years, the proceeds of running guns for the ANC. But this is still sitting tantalisingly offshore and the National Intelligence Service has found out about it and is using it as leverage, threatening to tip off the revenue service.

To end the series with characters, whom he has created and developed through three books, suspended in such dire personal circumstances, left him “guilt stricken and mortified” admits Nicol. As well as “taken aback” by the attachments he had developed.

“I know this sounds a bit weird and sort of authorish, but there was a helluva emptiness afterwards that took a long time to get over. All my other novels have been one-offs and one gets over them by the third draft, but when you’ve tracked a set of characters through three books and written about changes in their domestic situations the relationship – author to character – changes and they start ‘living’ in a way that one-off characters don’t.”

Nicol’s work resonates because it is an unapologetic, warts-and-all picture of South Africa today. Corruption is widespread, racism is thriving – an irony being that monsters who survived from the old regime are now doing deals with the new rulers – and the nation is gripped by casual violence.

Nicol concedes that as a crime novelist he takes some “perverse glee” in such depressing realities. “This is the way we live and,” he notes cynically, “possibly the way we’ve lived since the settlers got in on the act.

“There was a time after 1994 when I felt lost in our new country. I could recognise the physical landscape, but the emotional landscape felt strange. Fortunately this did not last long before we returned to our mendacious ways, and I woke up one morning as Tony Yengeni was heading off to prison with the gate guards using electronic shields to control crowds of supporters, including ministers, and I thought, okay, we’re back, this is a country I understand. This is wild and weird and what more can a writer who pulls his stories from the zeitgeist ask for?”

The year 1994 brought more than political freedom. For writers – and readers – it brought an escape from a local literature that revolved eternally around an anti-apartheid nexus, bleached of all variety and joy by high-mindedness. There was an escapist lacuna crying out to be filled that was spotted by a new generation of crime novelists, among whom Nicol quickly became one of the forerunners, along with Deon Meyer (in translation), Margie Orford, Richard Kunzmann and Roger Smith.

Nicol defends himself on the charge of excessive seriousness with his tongue firmly in his cheek: “On the topic of no action in my apartheid-era novels, I would like to enter a plea on the basis that I’ve always tried to have a high body count, even in my earlier non-crime fiction books.

“But yes, there is an exhilarating new freedom. And this is where crime fiction plays a useful role as a gauge of the social temperature. It involves a range of characters who have to make their way in a fairly robust world and the conventions demand a moral justice rather than a judicial one, so you can cut through the bullsh*t that we like to think holds our 21st-century societies together.”

There is also the satisfaction of giving crime readers, who have elaborate mental pictures of the mean streets of places such as London and New York, a South African literary landscape of the mind.

“The poet and academic Stephen Watson has written about the imagined city and how a city isn’t really a city until it has a fictional life. In the last five years, there have been a slew of crime novels with Cape Town as a setting. And because crime novels demand street names, actual buildings, recognisable landmarks, readers get to ‘walk’ this imagined cityscape,” says Nicol.

“For home readers, there is the pleasure of recognising the familiar. And for foreigners, there is hopefully the excitement of the exotic. I have had readers tell me Payback and Killer Country made their family in far-flung London, Toronto and Sydney homesick – that they read the books as much for the nostalgia of the landscape as for the story.”

So are there plans to get back to Mace, Pylon and the crew?

“Vague, tentative stuff,” hedges Nicol. “I do rather miss the family – in the midst of the mayhem that Mace and Pylon brought to the table – so maybe sooner rather than later they’ll be back.”


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