APRIL 6, 2017
BACK IN 2008, I had a surprise visitor to my office in Washington, DC: Albie Sachs, hero of the anti-apartheid movement, victim of a government-sponsored car bombing, and then a justice of the highest court of South Africa. Because I edit a magazine on contemporary sculpture, he wanted to talk to me about the art commissioned for the court’s new building in Johannesburg, on the site of a prison whose inmates had included Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. But he noticed the crime fiction on my bookshelves and mentioned that he was looking for something of that sort to read on the plane on his US tour, and we discovered a common interest in noir. I had discovered one of my favorite writers, Deon Meyer, in 2001 in a Cape Town used book store, where I was looking for local crime fiction. But Justice Sachs wasn’t looking for South African crime — that is an area in which he has plenty of personal experience in the real as well as fictional realms.
I didn’t discover Jassy Mackenzie, one of the foremost writers of South African noir, until after that conversation with Justice Sachs (her work wasn’t published in the United States until 2010), but I’d have loved to talk with him about her work: based in Sachs’s hometown, it deals not with the historical pattern of crime and injustice in the country but with the new landscape of crime. Sachs would certainly recognize the post-apartheid, but still unequal, social environment of Mackenzie’s Jade de Jong series, but readers will also recognize some familiar universal noir backdrops. In her newest, Bad Seeds, the scene shifts from a body dump at a dam to an industrial plant with sinister overtones to a rundown Best Western motel on the outskirts of Johannesburg, all in the first few chapters.
Bad Seeds, the fifth of Mackenzie’s Jade de Jong novels, has many other aspects of classic noir, and several of these qualities distinguish her work from most of South African crime fiction. For one thing, Jade is a private detective, and most of the principal figures in SA noir are cops, bodyguards, or profilers (as in the case of Margie Orford’s fiction). Other than Mackenzie, the most purely noir writer among fiction set in South Africa is Roger Smith, whose hyper-violent novels are saturated with noir atmosphere and moral anarchy — his cast of characters sometimes includes cops, but is often focused on people with violent pasts, which is also the case with the Jade de Jong series.
South Africa itself reflects many aspects of classic noir, a genre that grew out of Depression-era American malaise, with prominent themes of despair and a pervading lack of confidence in justice or hope for the future. There is the lingering legacy of apartheid, plus the corruption and rapid change of the first years of democracy, followed by rampant development that does little or nothing to ameliorate the chasm of inequality or the living conditions of the masses of both citizens and immigrants still stuck in township slums with little hope of a better life. Mackenzie’s descriptions of Johannesburg mix social history and cynical realism, such as her evocation of the outskirts of the sprawling city,
where the concrete footprints of development were beginning to trample the area. Nobody had planned the growth. She guessed it was Jo’burg’s usual style — a mishmash of industries that had been started up by whoever had money and the ambition to make lots more. Construction permits? Who cares! The city needs to grow. Municipalities can be bribed. Build now, apologize later.
Bad Seeds exploits these recognizably noir circumstances in the novel’s portrayal of the conflicts between nuclear power and ecological activism, extremes of poverty and wealth, and the destructive potential of gambling addiction, criminal greed, and terrorism.
Mackenzie is very good at welcoming new readers to the series. Everything you need to know about Jade’s past is recapitulated seamlessly in the narrative: her involvement with the shadowy Robbie, a hired killer who helped her eliminate her father’s killer (and thereby trapped Jade in a long-term obligation to assist him in his own projects); her mysterious mother; and her relationship with her former lover, David Patel (a detective with the South African police). None of the asides filling in these details slow down the story, which moves rapidly from a scene of a body being dumped by an unnamed and unhappy pair to Jade’s current job, tailing Carlos Botha, a former security supervisor at Inkomfe, South Africa’s nuclear experiment lab (the former site of the country’s apartheid-era nuclear weapons plant, a disturbing fact from that time that some of us may have forgotten). Her stakeout at a roadside motel leads quickly to a car wreck, a double murder, and a wild car chase in which Jade and her surveillance target team up to evade a violent pursuit.
A new character appears at the same time, the acting station manager of the local constabulary, Warrant Officer Thokoza Mweli, who is a distinctive addition to the series, with her own inner life (including a difficult relationship with her diet and her cat) and her own pursuit of evidence. But Mweli is also the thread running through the whole plot, tying everything together in her dogged investigation: when she first appears, she has been called away from the body dump to the Best Western murder, and from there she bounces from one plot twist to another whether she’s on the scene or in the background. David Patel also becomes involved in the story when his current case, involving an international terrorist, becomes entwined with Jade’s. But the novel revolves mostly among Jade, Botha, and Mweli, all of whom are under threat from dark forces related to the nuclear plant, which itself becomes a malignant force and almost a character in the novel in its own right.
Jade doesn’t trust her employer and becomes linked to Botha by their common goal of eluding whoever is trying to kill them. The story develops around her shuttling between these two as well as her pursuit of a former nuclear plant employee who became associated with an ecological activist group and has now vanished. The threat to her life could be coming from any of those directions, and Mackenzie tightens the suspense as she tries to find out who she can rely on, leading to a final violent confrontation.
Jade has been involved in dangerous cases before, including human trafficking in Stolen Lives; corrupt police, environmental conspiracy, and dark sexual and commercial acts in The Fallen; and even the death and disappearance of a whole community in Pale Horses. Throughout, Jade is a vivid presence, a capable and resourceful woman in the face of violence and (usually) a reliable force in the pursuit of justice for her clients. The other side of her life is always present, though: Robbie keeps popping up, occasionally to help Jade but often to involve her in criminal and deadly projects. She remains an alienated and unrooted character, whose home is a comically dissonant contrast to her otherwise stripped-down lifestyle: Her rented home is “a furnished garden cottage. […] She hoped whoever had furnished it would one day end up in some sort of upholstery hell as punishment for their overuse of the color pink and the plethora of scatter cushions that adorned every soft surface.”
Jade’s involvement with Robbie is one of the most distinctive, and distinctively noir, aspects of the series. He has a bit in common with Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley (perhaps the near-rhyme of their names is a deliberate reference on Mackenzie’s part), but while Ripley is ruthless in the pursuit of his own wealth and security, Robbie is for hire, and Jade is his occasional accomplice because of their shared past. Jade is hardly an enthusiastic participant in his crimes, but she is always an effective partner in his usually violent projects.
Robbie is offstage for most of Bad Seeds, but rarely forgotten, and at the points when he appears (directly or indirectly) in the story, he pulls the plot away from a conventionally ambiguous situation (such as the dilemmas of nuclear power, radioactive waste, and security in a violent country) and into the dark muddle of what used to be called hard-boiled fiction.
One might wonder why Justice Sachs would be attracted to these dark stories of crime, which tend to withhold the more traditional mystery’s payoff of order restored. After all, as a senior justice in the South African court system, Sachs must see plenty of cases of justice disrupted and ambiguously resolved. His own long struggle and violently interrupted exile should make fictional violence seem fake or insignificant. But noir is the poetry of the streets, the most vivid depiction of the contradictions of contemporary society. In South Africa, some of the most powerful portrayals of the inequalities and social disturbances of the post-apartheid era have come in crime fiction or in literary fiction that ventures into noir territory, most famously J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.
Mackenzie’s de Jong novels share a darkness with Disgrace but also offer a hint of hope. One of the minor characters in Bad Seeds, who is relegated to the dirtiest and most dangerous work at the nuclear plant because of his race and social status, offers Jade a gift of seeds that have a positive possibility, in contrast to the malignant seeds of the novel’s title. The seeds are for the inkomfe plant, the African potato, important in local herbal medicine, which also gives its name as a bit of “greenwashing” to the fictional nuclear facility in Bad Seeds (the real facility was renamed “Pelindaba,” Zulu for “end of story” after the dismantling of nuclear weapons). This suggestion of hope seems to be followed by Jade’s own brief moment of peace at the end of the story, a moment interrupted by the reassertion of tension and ambiguity that will carry the series forward. That edgy, nervous quality of Mackenzie’s writing is precisely the driver of noir’s continuing relevance to readers, whether or not involved in the attempts to assert justice and peace by people like Justice Sachs in the world’s structures of legal authority.
Mackenzie has written one stand-alone thriller (about brothers on opposite sides of a criminal enterprise) and several romance novels (two of them about a dominatrix), but in Jade de Jong she has created a character who channels the strengths of noir into an engaging examination of a country that is at the same time one of the most hopeful and most troubled in the world.