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SA’s fictional female detectives are a real people, writes Joa nne Hichens



HE FEMALE detective danced into writing on the heels of feminism during the last third of the last century In what . became known as Britain’s Golden Age of Mystery , dominated by the women authors who created these female sleuths, success bred success. Across the pond in America, until then it had been hard-boiled macho stuff, the tough guys meting out rough justice. Despite crime writing being dominated by men, there too, soon enough, the female investigator sprang into action, as physical in approach in the US as she was cerebral in Britain. From Victorian innovator to the modern provocateuse, the female writer and female sleuth have played an integral role in the development of crime writing. Women have never merely been an adjunct to what is often erroneously labelled a “male” domain. Internationally, the genre is flourishing under the pen of male and female writers, and is savoured by readers of both genders. As the crime-thriller genre continues to draw readers worldwide, South Africa is no exception in the share of women authors giving centre stage to the female detective. When it comes to a female lead, with feminine sensibility reflected on many levels, it is clear that in the crime fiction of Margie Orford, HJ Golakai, Jassy Mackenzie, and my own, the female sleuth who navigates the South African setting is, true to tradition, no shrinking violet. In a viciously misogynistic society wracked by crime of every sort, she has her work cut out. She is indeed a multi-tasker as she goes about her business. She is clever and confident, not without vulnerability and certainly more , hero rather than virago. “Clare Hart is not an endearing character,” says Orford as she describes her Cape Town-based documentary-filmmaker-profiler, the star of a series which has an international following. “Clare is too

prickly too much of an ice-queen, , too acerbic, too self-sufficient. But she is extremely intelligent and intellect in a woman is so attractive. She is also emotionally intuitive, and she has a gentleness that comes out when she least expects it.” Super-smart, super-cool Clare has the reader responding to her acuity her elegance and her fierce, ness. And her cat, and her lover in the wings lend her a dose of humanity “I love writing about her – . Clare’s worldview allows me a way of dissecting South African society and the moral and emotional entanglements it creates.” Catch her in Orford’s latest, Gallows Hill. Golakai’s Voinjama Johnson, known affectionately as Vee, debuts in The Lazarus Effect. As a contemporary investigative journalist committed to exposing the underbelly, she does so as a representative of an ever-growing sector of South Africa – the foreign community . “She’s different, an outsider. She’s from Liberia, a country few people are familiar with, but her personality has been strengthened by a tough background. The foreigner’s perspective is sometimes mishandled and given an unduly negative portrayal,” says Golakai. “Vee gives a more balanced picture, of both her past influences and her new lifestyle in Cape Town.” The well rounded Vee has a cute patois accent, is a caring godmother, takes her job as journalist seriously has dates and has fun. , “Real-life women are and do all of what Vee represents,” says Golakai. Indeed, Vee offers great escape and entertainment. Says Golakai: “She is intensely curious, tenacious, and will use her wits to turn a situation to a more advantageous outcome. But she’s more of an abstract thinker than a logical one, and balks at being blatantly dishonest, so she doesn’t have a regimented detection style. “She trusts herself to know what she’s good at, and it gets her to the truth in an uncon-

ventional way. Her feelings on crime are generic; she’s lived enough places to know that people can be liars, seedy corrupt, murder, ous and anything else given the right motive, irrespective of which corner of the world they occupy .”

When it comes to Mackenzie’s heroine, Jade De Jong, she, too, has contradictory traits. “She is capable of extreme compassion and enduring love, but she has a murderous side too, thanks to her killer genes. “I enjoy watching her struggle to make sense of these opposites. As an investigator and bodyguard, Jade lives and works in a dangerous milieu, and her world happens to be based in Johannesburg – Jade and Joburg are tough and dangerous on the surface, but with hearts of gold.” Although Jade rarely complains about crime in this country she is person, ally affected by the murder of her father which she avenges in Random Violence, the debut novel of the Jade De Jong series. Mackenzie adds: “Although Jade has been known to dispense her own form of justice from time to time, she is generally very obedient. She knows that if she does not co-operate in full with me, I will kill her off in the next book.” So far, with Mackenzie’s latest Worst Case on the shelves, Jade remains alive and well. Rae Valentine, my own sleuth, the sweetheart of Divine Justice, is a one-legged exjunkie, now turned counsellor, motivational speaker and private investigator. Rae has made good and, indeed, her past experience helps her to turn her hand to almost any job that comes her way She . is sassy and sexy, and as “coloured, an amputee, and female”, she fits every government spec for equal opportunity seeing , herself as an asset to any business. Goes without saying that Clare, Vee, Jade and Rae find themselves constantly in danger as they inves-

tigate fraud, corruption, murder. All but one carry guns for protection. But the world of crime writing is also a very human world in which supporting characters, specifically lovers, step on and off the scene. “Like many attractive, intelligent women,” says Golakai of Vee, “she not only wants a strongly matched partnership, but she likes her roses blue – great chemistry with the right man. Though she’s not sure any more if there is such an ideal as‘the right man’ and she’s caught deciding between a sexy rock and a smouldering hard place.” Orford says: “I respond very well to Captain Riedwaan Faizal, who is devoted to Clare. Given half a chance, I would charm him away from her and keep Riedwaan for myself. Every woman needs a man with a gun on her side – and he’s made precisely to order.” Jade’s seemingly doomed love affair with police Superintendent David Patel shapes many of her decisions, both good and bad. Mackenzie says, with her usual wry humour: “Her jealousy towards David’s wife is going to land her in seriously deep water down the line.” Rae has men trouble too. There are too many of them! The ex is most definitely history but Rae has , fallen for a divine cop, a more than willing and ready suitor. Meanwhile, other love interests wait in the wings. According to writer Adrienne Gavin, the death knell for a female sleuth is not the trajectory of a bullet, but the knell of wedding bells. So with series hanging in the balance, it is no wonder that Jade, Clare, Vee nor Rae are not seriously committed to any one of their various suitors and certainly have no intention of tying the knot. On another note, Golakai would like to see more black women writing crime novels, “and a wider audience and better reception for African stories would be fantastic”. This wider audience is something every local writer would like to experience. When it comes to South African crime-thriller fiction, it remains largely an undiscovered pleasure as South African readers too often devour overseas offering but shy away from local fiction. Dip in, to make the acquaintance of these thrilling women sleuths, as their creators explore the dark side, to expose humankind in extremis and to acknowledge the fragility of our individual existence. Author and journalist Joanne Hichens:

The mystery of rejection and acceptance

IT IS almost impossible to read Richard de Nooy’s second novel, The Big Stick (Jacana), without Jeanette Winterson’s tender Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit springing to mind. While The Big Stick is a mystery, it is also the story of young Staal Nel’s coming of age in Zeerust and Amsterdam in the 1980s, the former being a society where being openly gay was frowned upon, and the latter being a sexually-tolerant society. The dedication of the novel: “To my mother, who would have come to fetch me, too” is a telling one, as the novel is essentially about Alma Nel’s arrival in Amsterdam to retrieve her son Staal’s body and her quest to reconstruct events leading to his death. It is Alma’s final act of love as a

Th Bi St ck T e Bg S ick y Ric No y byRchard de N oy
mother and her very human, conflicting emotions enhance reader empathy and interest. Ultimately, for Alma, the journey is about overcoming her prejudices and changing her perception of the world. The novel is a subtle social commentary on otherness and society’s reaction to it. De Nooy’s treatment of the topic is sensitive and guileless, and displays a raw tenderness that is reminiscent of Antje Krog. De Nooy is an unashamed rule breaker.There are stereotypes, multiple viewpoints, a mix of interviews, narratives and personal reminis-

cences, but every broken rule enhances and entertains. The compelling characters have been sensitively drawn, from the humble Alma who finds herself far from her Zeerust comfort and being chaperoned around Amsterdam by the drug-dealing Rastafarian Sheikh, to Staal’s friends Janusz, Thiery and Guido.While Staal in his khaki anorak, and the scissor queens Dirk and Martyn might be considered somewhat stereotypical, it is perhaps the stereotype that allows a reader to feel comfortable and safe enough to explore the landscape of homosexuality. The novel is narrated from multiple viewpoints and one of the viewpoints De Nooy successfully employs is the under-used second person, a viewpoint generally avoided by writers. It is an effective tool to render

reader empathy and interest, and a tool de Nooy wields professionally. Military conscription is not just touched on by De Nooy, but terrifyingly held up for inspection.The horrific experience of trying to recondition the young homosexual Staal at a military hospital is depicted without censure. Indeed, while De Nooy is always sensitive in his telling, his perfect control of his writing ensures that events never tipple over into sentimentality. Funny, poignant and always sharp, the mystery weaves its way through the familiar and the unfamiliar, the mysterious and the mundane. The South African and Dutch landscapes and the people who inhabit them are beautifully rendered by De Nooy, who is adept at delivering a reader into a setting and using the

austere Zeerust, where Staal and his sexuality are rejected, in juxtaposition with the tolerant Amsterdam, where Staal ultimately finds acceptance and love.

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