Printer Friendly

Writing crime.

Crime fiction is filled with violent death, as P D James would call it in her BBC voice. Yet what drives many writers of crime fiction (of the better sort) is not the psychopath's obsession with killing, the gangster's with power, or the politician's with kick-backs, but a deep sense of moral outrage. The king of tartan noir, Ian Rankin, puts it like this in an article called "Why Crime Fiction is Good for You":
   What interests me is the soul of the crime novel--what it tells
   us about humanity, what it is capable of discussing. Good crime
   fiction tackles big issues. My own crime novels have discussed the
   morality of big business, political corruption, child abduction,
   the drug scene, the ramifications of the oil industry and so on
   .... We are all inquisitive and curious animals, learning through
   questioning, and crime fiction touches this deep need to both ask
   questions and to get answers.

This is certainly not everybody's opinion of crime fiction. Shortly after the publication of Blood Rose, my second Clare Hart thriller, a relative of mine asked when I was going to write a proper book. This is a fair question. Murder, rape, organised crime, collapsing state institutions, street gangsters, pathology labs, broken hearts and a couple of quickies along the way are not proper, as Raymond Chandler pointed out in his famous essay, "The Art of Murder".

Is it wrong to kill serially for others--essentially the job description of any crime fiction writer worth her salt? The pattern of one's day: wake up, kill a few people, have lunch, fetch kids, kill them--the people, not the kids, again in the afternoon because the pace is not quite right, cook dinner, smile at husband, sleep. Wake up. Do it again. Kill a few people, etc. It feeds the family but can it be ethical? Can it be good? Are the hard--boiled detectives we love and the serial books they inhabit moral? And if so, what manner of morals are these?

The Turkish philosopher, Sandrine Berges, summarises the traits of the hardboiled detective as "a predilection for casuistry and a rejection of rules, a tendency to care about what is going on around them and to be influenced in their action by this caring, and their character is seen to evolve and mature from one novel to the next because of what they have gone through. Because of this, if the hardboiled detective is a moralist, he or she is an Aristotelian moralist."

Now you must imagine that any crime writer--embarrassing scraper of the literary barrel--would be pleased to find that her characters might reach the cultural heights of Aristotle (which would be, I must add, a wonderful name for a detective).

Is crime fiction, as Rankin asserts, a vehicle for exploring the dark side of the human heart and the morality of our violent world with an Aristotelian moralist? An argument, by the way, cogently woven by our philosopher friend around Rankin's Rebus novels, Sara Paretsky's V I Warshawski, Marcia Muller and the Sharon McCone series (a female hardboiled who started in the seventies and is still going), and Jean-Claude Izzo's trilogy, featuring Fabio Montale, an ex-cop in Marseille.

I could assure my disapproving relative that I had started out trying to write a 'proper' book. I had outlined a very literary book which involved (of course) a farm--all books by literary white South Africans seem to involve farms with frustrated women immured on them. But it was a bird without wings and it did not fly. I wanted to write about Cape Town, this cruel and beautiful city, about dislocation, about the survival of love and hope. I wanted to write about South Africa as it is. I did not want to write about how it was meant to be. So I turned to crime. Reporting crime at first: gang initiations, special police units, rape crisis, organised crime, the sex industry.

I started interviewing cops, pathologists, ballistics experts, crime survivors, victims, their heartbroken relatives. And that led me to crime fiction. Like quite a few other crime writers (Michael Connelly is one--he was a crime beatjournalist for a long time; P D James was a magistrate), I started with true crime before turning to fiction. Does the one necessarily lead to the other? A little while ago I would confidently have said not. But one particular case brought me up short: it was described by Roy Hazelwood, legendary FBI profiler who with Robert Ressler started the FBI's Behavioural Sciences Unit, the model for our own, very effective Psychological Crimes Unit headed by Gerard Labuschagne.

In 1959 the Lonely Hearts Killer, as the press in their inimitable way dubbed him, was gassed in California. His methods were ingenious: posing as a photographer for the lurid detective magazines of the 50s he would advertise in a Lonely Hearts column for models, persuade these women to submit to his intricate bondage--that is after all what the magazines feature--photograph them changing from a state of trusting innocence to a look of terror. Then he would strangle them and pose the body. Amongst his most prized possessions were his photographs, trophies that he had taken from the women he murdered, and the detective magazines. The criminal tropes of sex and violence and crime fiction can blur uncomfortably.

A cop I interviewed about suspect--identification procedures told me once to be careful of what I write because, he said, the bad guys also read your books. So what sort of people are we, who sit back and watch the careful slaughter that crime writers pack into the 100 000 words between lurid covers allocated to them by their publishers? Voyeurs, perverts or, worst of all, literary low--brows?

I would like to put it to you that killing for others can be an ethical business. Believe it or not, but the spills and chills (or gruls, as we would call them locally) of crime fiction might make you a better person, an ethical person even. And if you, the readers, are good, then maybe I, the writer, can be good too.

It is old--fashioned and decidedly un--postmodern to be thinking of writing in terms of morality. Indeed, to think of society as a whole in terms of morality seems out of date. The very word evokes a kind of hypocritical prudishness that appears at first glance to be the opposite of reading and writing crime fiction. And yet, I would argue, crime fiction, despite, or perhaps because of, its penny--dreadful origins, can be one of the most comfortingly moral forms of literature. The best of it, as Rankin argues, takes on the problems that lie at the heart of contemporary society, of globalised culture. True, it reflects a world that has been permanently fractured; it tells of beleaguered individuals disconnected from the ordering comfort of family and clan. It describes a dystopian world of crowded, dangerous cities filled with violent, if not murderous strangers. It is not a pretty picture. And yet we love these books. Crime fiction sells. Why? What appeals to us? Why have these dark stories slipped so easily into our dreams?

I will start with myself. In 2001, I returned to Cape Town with my family. I had left South Africa in 1988, lived in London, in Namibia and then New York, but the country I returned to was foreign to me. Utterly familiar and yet unknown. I felt besieged by the extravagant violence of the place. I took it very personally. This is a dangerous place for women, for little girls, and I have three, but I need to find a way to live here, fully engaged. The barricaded suburbs don't do it for me. I was an investigative journalist and had made enough documentaries in my life to know what to do if there's a question that bugs me: go find out.

So I turned to crime. Not fiction, not at first. That was to come, the killing for others, making a living, like so many of my more practically--minded compatriots, from a life of crime. All my novels have their origins in my responses to particular, real crimes. Although my books are not about those crimes in any literal way, they are responses to violent ruptures and the resilience of survivors. Crime fiction has surprised me in its flexibility and in how it works for South Africa, a country that is embedded, like a stray bullet, in both my head and my heart. In all countries, but in South Africa particularly, because of our segregated past, cops and journalists are the only people who can believably navigate through this fractured and stratified society. And these--the hard--boiled cops and private investigators--are the flawed and morally challenged individuals, heroes of the genre. There is a problem with women and crime fiction--my lead character, Dr Clare Hart, encounters it, so I know--but I will return to that later. But first let's have a look at the dead centre of crime fiction: the victims, real and imagined.

When I came back to South Africa in 2001, I was flooded by victims, the horror of them, the sameness of them, the blankness of these bodies scripted with violence. Crime and violence are highly sexualised, we know that, but what does that mean, in effect? It means that the most mesmerising crimes are committed against women. The battered, punctured corpse that surfaces in the newspapers, in our public minds, in our fearful collective unconscious, is usually a woman's body. It drove me crazy, this casually murderous misogyny and how it silences the living, erasing depth, personality, difference, life.

The way I tried to counter this psychotic blur was to turn my own (evil) investigative eye, the defiant observer's eye that looks for truth, back on this invasion. I reported crime to get below the hard glass skin of violence and find the voices of the brutalised and the dead. I did all of that, but what to do with them once you hear the clamour of these mute voices in your head?

You write fiction. As a journalist, you can list a never-ending series of facts, but in crime fiction I have found that one can at least start to scratch at the truth. Crime fiction parachutes writer or reader into a dramatic moment in the present. Writing about the present as the aftermath of the past is a way of re-ordering the terrible rupture in time that violence, itself chaotic and beyond language, creates. But there are strong taboos against the representation of violence. The painter Marlene Dumas, one of South Africa's most famous exports, said this:
   It has been said that addressing or depicting subjects like sex and
   violence is the easiest way to attract attention. This is hard to
   deny, but as far as painting is concerned, it's not entirely true.
   For a long time, trend-setting painters thought that the most
   respectful and intelligent way of dealing with this, was simply to
   ignore it ...

This is true, I would argue, of writers too. Many literary writers turn away from subjects like sex and violence and raw power. But just as Dumas paints sex and violence, I wanted to write about sex and violence and power directly. I want to understand them, using the representational tools that the twentieth century gave me. The imagery, the sense of foreboding and female corruption of film noir; the conventions of suspense and revelation of crime fiction; the salaciousness of the tabloid press; the forensic ferreting of modern science that carries with it a desperate belief that its revelatory powers will vanquish death by explaining how it happened. The genre of crime fiction, with its set limits and containments, seems to me as much part of modernity, a key thread of the urban fabric as crime itself. All these elements came into being at around the same time. They are part of what has made our now globalised modernity. And just as the form of the modern, alienated city has spread across the globe, so has crime fiction.

The end of the nineteenth century and the turn of the twentieth saw the birth of the detective in the fictional form of Sherlock Holmes, in the actual detectives who went after the first and defining serial killer, Jack the Ripper. He came to life with the tabloid press's love affair with the sensation of his frenzied misogyny, perhaps the hallmark of crime fiction and pornography. This was the time too of Freud, the first profiler, who invented or discovered the unconscious, the dark site where secrets lurk and where writers and readers ferret for answers to apparently inexplicable crimes. It is the time of the birth of brutal modernist cities-the Gotham cities, the 'krimi-cities', as Mike Nicol calls them, evoked by crime writers who set their books in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, London, New Orleans and Cape Town. In these mean streets, Chandler's strangers lurk and prey on the innocent. It is here that the serial killer, the ultimate stranger without conscience, stalks. His is the inner voice is never still or small: it tells him what to do and he does it. The potential victims, ordinary people like me and you, have a conscience that tells them what not to do.

It is into these streets that one slips the lonely hero(ine), the Aristotelian moralist, to walk the streets on our behalf, to investigate the darkness and put it to rights. In a sense, the hero(ine) of crime fiction is a prosthetic eye/ I who can look at the medusa-head of crime, the psychic drive behind violence and fear, and not be turned to stone. This certainly is the tradition of Ruth Rendell and P D James and others, who are concerned with the psychological origins of criminal behaviour and its effects.

But this is not a monster to be slain. As Joe Muller pointed out in his wonderful overview of crime fiction, the dragon often wins. Crime fiction, only partly driven by the dark desires of publishers' marketing departments, is that return to the moment of rupture, the murder. In Freudian terms, the compulsive return to an originating trauma, the return of the repressed, the pattern of compulsive behaviour. I think it is impossible to integrate violence, no matter how many times one tries (the source perhaps of profit for publishers of crime fiction), but one does get some temporary relief. As you well know when you get to the end of a good thriller, you sigh in satisfaction as the evil-doers get their just desserts and our lonely investigator gets to settle down at the bar with a double scotch if (s)he's unlucky. And finally gets laid if (s)he's lucky. And crime fiction has produced some of the sexiest, most fuckable women in the literary canon. Who better to smoke in bed with than Elmore Leonard's raunchy broads, so direct about shedding their kimonos?

A little aside here, again on the problem of women. The twentieth-century city produced two kinds of street walkers. One is male, the flaneur who walks endlessly, is able to go everywhere: Walter Benjamin's man of the crowd, the PIs like Philip Marlowe and his many cousins. The other street walker is the flaneuse, the prostitute, the woman alone on the streets, who is suspect, a target. This is the bedrock of the problem that a female lead throws up: the city is different for a woman; her presence on its mean streets means that she is both dangerous and endangered. It is an interesting place to write from, but reveals all sorts of tensions around form and realism.

But I digress: back to you, the crime fiction reader. What is it you do when you read about the victims? It is taboo to acknowledge that ambiguous erotic surge that throbs in violence, just as it is taboo to acknowledge the primitive thrill of pornography. And yet we all seem to desire it. Is it unethical to make your reader vicariously share that surge of power that comes with the enacted desire to kill?

There is no thrill for the victim. The experience of a moment or day or year of violence is utterly different for victim and perpetrator. So how does one manage that shared space when we write/read both victim and perpetrator, something that the British mid-century cosies assiduously avoided? The answer lies for me in where you take your reader (and yourself) after that thrilling spectacle of violence, in what you do with that response. And here you have two options. The one is to go deeper and deeper into 'bad' crime: the titillating display of violence--a written version of the slasher flicks so beloved of teenage boys. Or you go the other way, the moral way. As Elmore Leonard does, as do John Lee Burke, both Connellys, Ian Rankin, Deon Meyer, Paretsky, Pelicanos. These 'good' crime writers take you towards an understanding and a catharsis of the violence, the punishment of the perpetrators, and an at least temporary restoration of order.

So what about the art of crime? One definition of art is: "the ability to achieve things by deceitful or cunning methods (literary)." I like the bracketing of the term literary. Because that is what the (suspect) crime writer uses deceitful or cunning methods to place her reader there, in that space of violence and catharsis. A catharsis that only exists in the realm of crime fiction. In the realm of real-life crime, there is rarely resolution, peace or full recovery from the violence endured by the victims. There is sometimes imprisonment (if one is lucky) of the perpetrator (if he is caught; if the cops don't lose the evidence). For the survivors, there is the caging-in of that experience, the incarceration of memory so that the horror endured is kept hidden in a place where you pray it never leaks back into the conscious mind.

Let me start with the (ethical) problem of writing the victim. She is central: her rape, her torture, her death, whatever you choose, is what triggers the narrative--from which she is crucially absent. Indeed, it is her absence that allows the writer, like a psychopath, to turn a person with a life--unremarkable, regular, existing in and over time--into a corpse. She is someone who exists only in the moment of her death. A spectacular moment, to be sure, but one that is fixed forever, frozen in the arresting moment of crime-time. The victim is a forensic work of art, created by her killer, her writer. There to be deciphered, to be 'read' by you, her reader.

The victim initiates the story, but she is also a rupture in time, in the real time of the reader, a rupture that needs to be sutured back into narrative, into historical, linear time in which each moment of the present is seamlessly linked to each moment of the past, and then to each sequential moment in the future. In death, that is broken--that is what is so compelling about the victim, so frightening about her. She is death. She ends time. She reminds us of our own mortality.

The crime novel, in trying to figure out what happened, is deeply comforting because the novel, the police work, the investigation, will (in the most fundamental way) take this moment of death, this terrible end-of-time, back into science, into art, into representation, into time. We are alive--we must be, we're reading. So we will understand what happened. We will live another day. For the voyeur reader-writer-investigator, that science, that art, is the veil we pull closed at the end of the book to hide away the abject horror of the corpse.

When I worked as an investigative journalist I could tell the facts endlessly without getting to the truth of violence, resilience or revenge. Crime fiction offers a way of telling an emotional and moral truth, a forensic exploration of the physical, emotional and moral aftermath of violence. It was out of this insight that my lead character, the investigative journalist and profiler, Dr Clare Hart, emerged fully clad with a PhD in femicide and serial rape and an apartment on the Sea Point Promenade. And from her rib--her feminine weak spot--Captain Riedwaan Faizal was born. I started off without him but soon realised that I needed someone on the inside (he is a cop), and as I learned quickly, in this crime--fighting genre, a man with a gun can change everything in a moment.

Killing for others: the practice

In my first book, Like Clockwork (2006), I stayed with the victims, the broken, mutilated bodies of rape survivors and femicide victims, those who had not outlived the assaults. This first book was born out of an image: a drying rack that looked like a deli fridge in the medical forensic labs at Delft. Inside were panties: big, small, expensive, washed over and over, Woolies beige, a lovely wisp of bloodied lace. And one tiny red pair from Pep Stores. It had a label: age 2-3, and one unravelling thread that floated above it. I asked a cop who was showing me around what this was and he shrugged: "That's Cape Town on a Monday morning. Those are the rape cases."

The writer's gift: the small detail that evokes the whole, and provokes a sense of deep moral outrage: somehow I had to find a way of restoring those panties to their owners, of finding the intimate pulse of their lives, of making them back into human beings again. Not these pared down metonymies of degradation and pain.

I learned the importance of detail from Michael Connelly, the author of the Harry Bosch series, when he visited Cape Town on a book tour. He spoke about the spareness of crime writing--good crime writing--and the economy of detail that speaks volumes. He told me about an event early in his career as a young crime reporter. Someone had gone missing and the whole cop shop was in an uproar, except for the commanding officer. Connelly told me he was absolutely calm. Then the call came that a body had been found and the sheriff put down his glasses and went out. The arm of the glasses was bitten down, right to the metal: the detail that revealed where this man--so calm in the face of trauma--got rid of his tension. It always comes out somewhere. And that is what you look for.

There was also a question from a beautiful, shattered woman I interviewed in a shelter in Atlantis. She had been trafficked from Goma, had escaped, and was looking for her daughter, stranded in a refugee camp. On the day I spoke to her, she just had her HIV test results. She was negative. She answered my questions patiently and then she said she wanted to ask me something. "Sure," I said. "Anything, ask." "Why," she said, "are there women in South Africa who will hold down the legs of their own daughters so that their husbands or boyfriends or the man next door can rape them?"

That was a moral question that I needed to answer. Yes, I had a serial killer in Like Clockwork; I had structured the novel so that its main subject was a warped mind, the terrifying, exceptional stranger with dark dreams. What I needed to address was the social malaise that allows people in the most prosperous African country to prey on its weakest and most vulnerable members. That woman's question pointed out to me that the location of the most violent betrayals lies in the heart of the family--both the blood-family and the family that is the nation. It was something I had to leave until I wrote Daddy's Girl (2009).

The perpetrators: the art of making you feel

Wittgenstein said ethics and aesthetics are one and the same. Tricky, that. The writer places you, the reader, alongside me, the writer, in that murdered body, under her permeable skin that will be stabbed, shot and marked first for the cops, then the pathologist, to read, finally for the bereaved mother to wash and love. That is where I put you. This creates empathy with her, but it also gives you the feel of the killer: you, like our investigative hero, want him dead.

In my first book, my victims are beautiful, nearly innocent. Beloved, but briefly unprotected by their mothers. The trope of femininity and death is close to the surface of our cultural memory, present in the paintings and literature of the nineteenth century; in the films and television series and pornography of the twentieth. Edgar Allen Poe's formulation, that the most poetic subject is the death of a beautiful woman, holds true. Can one short-circuit the erotic charge of the damaged female body, the building block of pornography, desire and crime fiction?

The research I have done has showed me that the commonest victims of violent crimes are men. There are few women in the carnage that is Salt River Mortuary on a Monday morning. And yet, unless that male body belongs to someone you know, it is not easy to get worked up about it. These victims are mostly young, have often been drunk and fighting: the collateral damage of the mean streets of this century and the last. Dead men don't mean all that much in literary or cinematic terms, which means it is not easy to write about them.

In my second book, Blood Rose (2007), I learned the hard way that in crime fiction one must pick one's bodies with care. This book was also born out of a single image, a single event. I was working on a film about Walvis Bay in Namibia, a film commissioned by the Town Council. While I was shooting, a fifteen year-old boy was murdered. His mutilated body was tossed over the fence of a school, where it was discovered in the playground on a Monday morning. Beyond the school was a dump site with an incinerator that spewed black smoke into the mist and fog that constantly envelops Walvis Bay. The killer, who tortured and sodomised him, splitting him open, was never discovered. The boy's body floated on the edge of my consciousness for a long time--the ease with which his death was allowed not to matter. He was just dead--cleaned up, cleaned away, and everyone shrugged their shoulders and said it was probably a fisherman on one of the boats which left port that morning. And that was that.

It did not seem right to leave this unremembered dead boy on the sand at the bottom end of the playground, that liminal childhood space of bullying, violence and furtive exchanges of sexual favours. So I decided to imagine his story, stitching it into Namibia's violent and undiscussed past, unaware of how much literary trouble it would cause me. My chosen victims, homeless teenage boys who lived on a dump site, were a challenge to the easy aesthetic, the tested conventions of crime fiction, which likes its plot-triggering victims to be innocent, or at least attractive. The killing of someone male and marginal is not an easy thing to make readers worry about. When you kill a young woman, you bring years of artistic conditioning around pathos, reproductive value and innocence. Kill a delinquent boy and you've tidied up the street. I had to make these dead boys come alive in the text as beloved children lost, individuals snuffed out, little chaps who had just stepped out of childhood in order to make the plot and your pulse race. I had to create a sensory affect of smell, of proximity, of childishness, of a sense of responsibility in the reader for these dead children. With one boy, I showed his outgrown spiderman pyjamas--a child's garment that carried the imprint of his little body before his death. I had to make you care and, in the end, it worked. This book is now being developed into a pilot film for a potential TV series.

Do your homework. Get the detail right

Many of the crime writers I have spoken to do a great deal of detailed research. Verisimilitude is crucial if readers are to find the plot plausible. You make a mistake, you lose them and they never come back to your books. But I did not realise that in order to be a crime writer one must look like a crime writer. When I first visited the ballistics unit outside Somerset West I was rather taken aback when the head of the unit kept on looking behind my shoulder. I looked round too. There was no one there. "Where are your body guards?" he asked.

"I don't have any," I said.

"Are you sure you're a crime writer?" he asked. "When Patricia Cornwell came here she had two!"

"I'll work on it," I promised him. And I am!

My lack of body guards aside, this detailed research underpins my work. For Blood Rose I learned to shoot. Properly: pistols, revolvers, machine guns. None of them moved me at all until I picked up one--a tiny Browning that would be snug in my handbag. I held it in my hand--it fitted perfectly; the charge that it sent through my body was electric and devastating. I felt in it, the power it gave me, so snug and small in my palm. It stayed with me, that feeling of power. For the first time I felt complete identification with the perpetrators of violence--the allure of power, illusory as it is, that comes from holding a weapon in your hand and being prepared to use it.

In Blood Rose, I make you watch the killing of my poor boys from behind the shoulders of my perpetrators, shifting the reader from comfortable voyeur to participant, pushing the reader onto a kind of moral trapeze. There is a safety net, though: our trusty Aristotelian hero(ine) who feels with you and will bend the rules to bring the killers to justice on your behalf.

Are we ethical in the enterprise we have found ourselves in together, you and I?

It seemed sensible to ask an ethicist about the problem of ethics and representation, especially the representation of violent and degrading experiences. So I phoned David Benatar, professor of Philosophy at UCT. He raised two issues for consideration. First: that one would have to weigh up the value of the public knowledge of things against an individual's right to privacy. A solution to this would be that a story be told anonymously--because once it is linked to an individual, it would be a further assault. I did this in all my books, sinking real people and real interactions deep below the surface of my fiction, so that their lived experience is the pulse, the heartbeat of the stories. Secondly, and this is interesting for an author of fiction, was Benatar's insistence on the necessity of truthfulness. A vexing question for a novelist. Is my account truthful? Does it reflect things accurately? If I represent crime in a hyperbolic way, will people take this representation as truth? Much of what I think of as good crime fiction is not hyperbolic. It might be condensed, time might be speeded up a little, but it is not possible to create a good story without being truthful and accurate in the essence of interactions around traumatic events. Unfortunately, most real crime is far too hyperbolic, far too outrageously meaningless, the violence too gratuitous to be turned into a good story. It's just lots of shooting and hitting and stabbing and then people are dead and children crying. End of story. No reason, no explanation, no gain. Just loss and pain and no words to say it.

So it seems that the ethics are messy, the aesthetics complex, but for Ian Rankin for one, that is a good place for a crime writer to be. He writes in "Why Crime Fiction is Good for You":
   What crime fiction needs is a sense of the incomplete, of life's
   messy complexity. The reader should go to crime fiction to learn
   about the real world, not to retreat from it with comfortable
   reassurances and assumptions... Good does not always triumph in
   today's crime fiction; evil cannot always be rationalised.

Writing the nation into crime fiction

It was life's messy complexity which brought me finally to Daddy's Girl. I wanted to explore a feral society, where the very institutions and individuals that should protect one are criminal, a society that picks off the weak and vulnerable. Daddy's Girl originated from a series of real events. In a two week period in 2007, seven or eight little girls, ranging from 18 months to about six, were killed. I asked myself, what does it mean when fathers turn on their (baby) daughters and kill them? A Jungian formulation, I know, but what other kind of question can one ask? What should one ask when patriarchy is stripped to its malignant bones and kills its own children? In the Greek myth of origins, Cronos eats his sons. Here, in Cape Town, there is an easier, a more tender devouring.

The plot is simple. A little girl is abducted; her desperate father looks for her. In writing this book, I took myself close to the edge of an abyss. How does one represent violence towards children? This was the dilemma that I faced. There is no shared imagery except in the darkest recesses of the net. Or in Myra Hindley's tape recordings.

I had a great problem of representation: is there any way to do it that is not exploitative, that doesn't push the reader up against the limits of the permissible? Is there a way that does not collude with the violence perpetrated against so many children in our midst? What could you say that was good? What was ethical? What restored bodily integrity to that child? What could mend the social fabric and the broken family?

The tolerable location for me was Riedwaan Faizal, the everyman who tries to be a good father, who looks for his daughter. So I went to the men who are perpetrators, participants and victims and in whose hands and hearts it lies, I believe, to heal this mess we have made. It seemed the only decent, the only ethical thing to do. Of course, there is the woman too; the very unmotherly Clare Hart who, against her betterjudgement, helps him hunt for his child. And who finds her--the woman's body once more that place of succour and non--linguistic comfort.

Dr Eleanor Bell, a professor of Scottish literature at Strathclyde University sent me her wonderful article, "Ian Rankin and the Ethics of Crime Fiction". Bell writes that Ian Rankin "reflects on the ethical imperatives at the heart of crime writing, suggesting that it ought to invoke a self-conscious interrogation of the dark underside of society, inviting the reader to probe beneath everyday appearances in order to better understand the complexities of modern identity and belonging". Rankin, she argues, draws attention to the ethics of crime fiction, defending "the genre against the common criticism that it is a debased form of literature. For Rankin, crime fiction allows access to the deepest recesses of society, to usually restricted areas, spaces the average reader would only want to engage with voyeuristically in print or on screen. Good crime fiction therefore encourages an active sociological reading, where the reader becomes an armchair detective of the world around them".

Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch; Rankin's John Rebus; P D James's Adam Dalgliesh, Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta, Cormac McCarthy's puzzled cops in No Country for Old Men, my own Clare Hart; Deon Meyer's Benny Griessel and Matt Joubert, all allow one to do this. There is a profound and unambiguous morality around these detective leads, the characters with whom both reader and writer identify. Is this the golden thread at the centre of good crime fiction that holds the moral centre and your attention? These characters, flawed and emotionally tainted as many of them are, behave in essentially ethical or virtuous ways. An ancient, Aristotelian concept of morality, because for Aristotle, as Sandrine Berges points out, "a virtuous person feels the right kind of emotions, at the right moment, and is thus driven by them to the right course of action". This is essentially what the detective does, and what the crime writer tries to do for you.

I wish to thank:

Dr Eleanor Bell. 2008. "Ian Rankin and the Ethics of Crime Fiction". (You can buy the article online from the journal, Clues: A Journal of Detection 26(2): 53-64.)

Sandrine Berges of Ankara University for her article, "The Hardboiled Detective as Moralist: Ethics in Crime Fiction". This is where I found it: q=cache: Hardboiled Detective and Virtue Ethics.doc+The+Hardboiled+ Detective+as+Moralist:+Ethics+in+Crime+Fiction&cd= 1&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=za.

And all the crime fiction authors I love.


(1.) Lecture as part of a series on crime fiction, Summer School, University of Cape Town (January 2010).
COPYRIGHT 2010 Program of English Studies, University of Natal
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2010 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Postscript
Author:Orford, Margie
Publication:Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa
Article Type:Viewpoint essay
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Jul 1, 2010
Previous Article:Organised forgetting in South Africa: Peter D McDonald's The Literature Police: Apartheid Censorship and its Cultural Consequences.
Next Article:Justifiable violence?

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters