Opinionista Amy Heydenrych 7 August 2019

The thread of violent light that illuminates crime fiction

It’s through these stories that we make sense of ourselves in relation to concepts of good and evil. It’s here that we generate empathy or anger as we understand what makes criminals tick.

My crime fiction career started in a hot, biscuit-coloured room at a small-town police station in Eastern Cape. The lights burned too bright as I handed over the scroll of my underwear over the table to be bagged as evidence and gave a police officer my statement.

Outside, my dad, usually a tall, forboding figure, had fainted on the car park gravel, felled by stress. As the forces that are set into motion after a rape moved around me, from the district surgeon to the nurses who conducted the rape kit, to the detective who quizzed me on the physical characteristics of the attackers going pale when one of the descriptions matched his own son, I floated above my body unable to cope with the intensity of the scene, with the trouble I was causing. 

I began to passively observe, taking mental notes, already editing and refashioning the story in my mind into something where I didn’t feel so ashamed or helpless.  

As South Africans, the existence of danger is indisputable and hard-edged. It has a tendency to frame our worldview. If you’re a prophet of doom, it adds fuel to the fire of your discourse; if you’re a fierce optimist, it becomes something to frame with optimism or repress. You convince yourself that guns are drawn at different intersections to the ones you travel, that the armed robbery in the news was a case of bad luck, or walls that weren’t high enough.

Some like to believe that only a certain class of person is a criminal even though the greatest thieves of our generation lived in Saxonwold, even though my rapists (and many others) were privileged and white, written off as boys being boys. 

As South Africans, crime colours our experience of our country. Horror stories unfold around fires, the way they have for centuries, or unfold via WhatsApp groups. We move through space with a part of ourselves clenched, ready for the worst. 

I didn’t imagine myself as a crime writer. Why would I write about something that is all around me? As South Africans, aren’t we bored of crime stories? Years after I left that police station, I wrote the most raw, biting, difficult short story of my career.

Every observation I had on that night gouged into the page like acid, including my feelings of guilt. Because a sense of complicity is the invisible pulse of the South African crime experience. After a smash and grab, people will ask, what was visible on your seat? Were you driving in a bad area and were your windows covered in smash and grab film? 

Even as the crimes worsen there is the pervasive pointing of a finger, but were you walking alone, were you carrying pepper spray, did you check that someone was following your car a bit too closely on your way home? Releasing this innate tension on to the page was nothing short of redemptive. Finally, I was free. 

In a country such as Iceland, which was ranked by think tank Global Finance as the safest in the world, crime writing provides a space to explore darker themes. South Africans, however, don’t need crime stories to imagine a world of danger. Therefore, the psychology behind the popularity of the genre must run deeper. 

I believe it is a question of power. In Deon Meyer’s novels, Bennie Griesel saves the day, even when the Capetonian criminal underworld is pitted against him. In Sally Andrew’s Tannie Maria series, the grit, gore and messiness of crime are reimagined as a cosy mystery, where an aunty of a certain age is empowered to uncover secrets before preparing a roast Karoo lamb dinner. In Angela Makholwa’s Black Widow Society, a secret organisation liberates women trapped in abusive relationships by “eliminating” their husbands. Through our crime stories, South Africans are able to fight back. 

But our trauma, both experienced and pre-emptive, is as distinct as an accent. In my first novel, my UK editor observed that when each of my characters faced violence, they instantly dissociated. In early edits of the novel, there are no descriptions of fear or dread. It took several drafts for me to fully inhabit fear enough to portray it in the voice of someone else. This was no coincidence. After the several brushes I have had with crime, I had wilfully disconnected from the physical experience of feeling under threat. In my attempt to cope I had lost my voice.  

So, we find the words again. As readers or writers of crime, we find new ways to express our complex relationship with existing, believing in and thriving in a country where three of our cities fall within the top five most dangerous in the world. 

Although I write fictional characters, there are moments where my relationship with trauma is laid bare. My experience with reporting a rape and dropping the case out of fear of testifying at a trial appears in my new book, as do the micro-expressions of how that trauma has manifested later in my life. Writing about my encounter with the dark side of humanity has freed me from its grip.  

Crime literature has been dismissed as unliterary, a genre sweepingly described as “holiday” or “airport” reading. But it’s through these stories that we make sense of ourselves in relation to concepts of good and evil. It’s here that we generate empathy or anger as we understand what makes criminals tick.

It’s about racing to the ending of a great crime story and feeling the satisfaction of justice served. For me, there is something greater. The more I write about crime, the more interested I am in the thread of light the grit of the survivor, the effort of the investigative teams and the support of friends, family and therapists. 

As South Africans, we don’t need more crime stories. One glance at our news or non-fiction charts shows that the reality is far stranger than fiction. But, when we find the right crime story, we might be offered an escape, a vision of justice, a sense of our trauma being expressed in the words of another. A crime novel entertains, and sometimes that is enough. As a writer, it has become an unlikely way to make sense of a violent world. ML

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