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Mike Nicol

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Interviews about Payback

Two interviews: the first was posted on and the second on Crime Beat

(1) Crime can pay
Article By: John Dobson
Wed, 17 Jun 2009 14:48

Mike Nicol is unquestionably one of South Africa’s leading journalists and authors with a broad range of work from memoir to biographies to novel and lately crime fiction.

He was the co-author of the popular ‘Out to Score’ and then the author of the thriller ‘Payback’ and is regarded as being in the vanguard of the rise of South African crime fiction — a genre that is making its name globally. asked him ten questions

You have written a broad range of works — from journalism to novels to biography to crime, but your last two have been crime. Are you now a crime writer? Did journalism help in this?

The question of writer’s identity! I’m still writing journalism as that’s what keeps me alive and I find it (especially long non-fiction) a very exciting form. My fiction has turned to crime and I’d be only too happy to be known as a crime writer. And, yes, being a journalist has been a great help because it got me to places most people don’t see. But in the end fiction is about the imagination and no matter how many gangsters you meet, if you can’t imagine their lives they’re dead on the page.

Would you agree South African crime fiction has come of age in recent years with the likes of you, Margie Orford, Deon Meyer leading the charge? Why has Cape Town featured so prominently?

You need to add Richard Kunzmann to the list of usual suspects. As for Cape Town, it might simply be because most of us live here but if we’re going to get deep about it, it might be because Cape Town is an old city (in our terms) and that accretion of time has given it a social complexity. Then again it is spectacularly beautiful and rich and spectacularly degraded and poverty stricken. And crime fiction is all about contrast.

What do you think has caused this surge?

Definitely the ending of apartheid. The cops, for one thing, are no longer an invading army. And we’re now maturing as a society and have given ourselves permission to write schlock fiction. I do not think it has anything to do with the true crime situation. Crime fiction is about fantasy and good stories.

Do you think ‘we’ stack up with the best of the genre internationally or are they only doing well because of local resonance?

Um. We are not really stacking up internationally yet. And it takes a long time to encourage a local readership to buy local. Years of pedantic apartheid literature are against us at the moment and readers are inclined to say: ‘A South African book, please, no, take it away.’ That said, the sales of local crime fiction have started improving and there is no doubt that book festivals and the Cape Town Book Fair help because readers get to meet and hear the writers and are beginning to realise this stuff is fun.

How do you avoid or do you want to avoid slipping into the cliché of American PI/cop thrillers?

They’ve set a damn good model and its one that is applicable to us and to a certain extent we’re going to be drawn into it. Those of us subversive enough will no doubt also seek to subvert it. The local angle I suspect should draw us into a territory of our own.

How did you find co-writing something as personally creative as a crime thriller?

We followed a rigid process and that made the co-authorship possible. However, it did make me realise that I am (like most authors) a writer of solitary persuasion.

Mullet is now a much loved figure – will he be back?

Yes he will. The novel’s US publisher is keen on developing a series.

What are you working on at the moment?

Crime, crime and more crime. Also a story of the radio station 702, and a biography of Christo Brand, Mandela’s favourite warder. And the Crime Beat blog takes a huge amount of material.

There is lots in the book (‘Payback’) — is this part of a desire to comment on our society extensively yet entertainingly?

Since I started writing my intention has been first to tell a story and then to do what the novel automatically does which is to ferret around in society’s underbelly. Crime fiction allows (almost demands) this and it can be done as satire so it’s funny. Hitting out at the corruptions of government, politicians, businessmen, all the sacred cows is just so exhilarating.

What are your views on the SA readership given that Jake White’s book and ‘Spud’ top best seller lists?

My feeling is we have a very sophisticated readership that buys mostly imported books. If they could be persuaded to try local authors then the local industry would do better. ‘Spud’ sold because of word of mouth which is what moves most books. Jake White’s book sold because of Jake White and rugby but I’m not sure you could call his market the SA readership.


(2) The following interview was posted on Crime Beat in May 2008. Crime fiction aficionado Joe Muller put a gun to Mike Nicol’s head and had a quiet chat about some matters relating to a certain novel entitled Payback.

Crime Beat: 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 hellbent 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.

Crime Beat: 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.)

Mike Nicol: Afraid so. An instance of watch this space…

Crime Beat: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?

Mike Nicol: 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 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.

Crime Beat: 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?

Mike Nicol: 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.

Crime Beat: 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?

Mike Nicol: He is.


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