NOVEMBER 1, 2014
IN THE PAST 15 YEARS there has been a blossoming of noir in South African literature, flourishing in an environment that combines a hope for the future with the hard realities — poverty, crime, and corruption — of the country’s new normal. Two of the best new noir writers, both based in Cape Town, are Deon Meyer (who writes in Afrikaans) and Margie Orford (who writes in English).
Meyer’s Cobra features Detective Benny Griessel, a member of Meyer’s cast of recurring characters, and Orford’s Water Music focuses on her series’s protagonist, Dr. Clare Hart. On the surface, the books have a lot in common: both are set in Cape Town; both are continuations of established series at the “grim noir” end of the crime fiction spectrum; both feature the country’s range of races and ethnicities and are interspersed with expressions from local languages and dialects (Cobra has a helpful glossary at the end); both feature main characters who are struggling with acute personal difficulties. Most critically, both deal with kidnappings and are set against the background of gang violence in the prisons, the townships, and the city.
Dr. Hart, the half-Afrikaner and half-English main character in Water Music as well as Orford’s other four novels, is a filmmaker, profiler, women’s advocate, television personality, and consultant on child victims for the South African Police Service. Orford’s narrative point of view focuses almost entirely on Hart and, to a lesser extent, her life partner, Captain Riedwaan Faizal of the SAPS’s Gang Unit. Water Music begins with the discovery of a young girl, emaciated and naked, tied with a belt to a fallen tree yet still alive. Even as she investigates the scene, Hart’s consultancy with the police is being threatened because the government minister who hired her has been removed from office. Hart tells a reporter that the former minister supported her work because “ voters are owed explanations as to why so many children and their mothers die,” whereas the new minister’s assistant, Jakes Cwele, announces that the special focus on child victims must end because, “Economic stability is everything. We know that crime is a result of poverty, therefore this must be addressed first.” Hart’s office is to be closed, and Faizal’s job is threatened as well. Despite Cwele’s escalating threats to sideline her and her colleagues, Hart begins searching for the abandoned girl’s identity, though she is stymied by the child’s silence and by the fact that no one has reported her missing. Her only clues are the girl’s pallor (she seems almost to have never been exposed to the sun) and the name “Esther” engraved on her neck, like a prison tattoo.
Hart is also confronted by a man whose granddaughter, Rosa, has disappeared from a posh music school, and though the police have refused to assist in this second case, she begins to search for this older girl as well, an off-the-books investigation that only aggravates the constant threat from Cwele and his boss. Hart’s frantic and frustrating investigations into both cases are made more difficult by the absence of Faizal, who is on an undercover assignment, and by her discovery of her own unwelcome pregnancy.
Orford, like her protagonist, is a filmmaker, and her scene setting and cinematic storytelling are evident in all her novels, as she exploits the beauty and violence of Cape Town to good effect in both media. Hart’s focus on crimes against women and children is also one of the strengths of the series, and her pregnancy adds a personal crisis to the plot of Water Music. Her unease with the idea of motherhood and her inability to discuss the pregnancy with Faizal (at first because he’s away and later out of reluctance to deal with the prospect of motherhood) grow as she investigates the various threats to the two girls: the whole spectrum of those involved in what Hart calls “the devil’s merry-go-round” of drugs, cash, addiction, and gangs, as well as spoiled music students and a few locals who had encountered Rosa. The ultimate solution to both cases comes from an unexpected discovery that brings the stories together and puts Hart herself in grave danger.
Meyer, who was a journalist before he turned to fiction, vividly depicts the story of South Africa in his novels, from the hope and turmoil of the fall of apartheid to the corrupt and desperate aspects of present-day Cape Town. His writing is clear and brisk, in his portrayals of both the social panorama and the inner lives of his characters. In Cobra, Griessel, one of the few Afrikaner cops who remained on the force when the old South Africa gave way to the new order, has an inglorious history that he and his colleagues can never forget: he is the “detective who had once arrived at a murder scene so drunk that they had to load him in the ambulance along with the victim’s corpse.” He now blames his alcoholism, in part, on the stresses of defending civil order in a poisonous social system. In a new police force threatened by corruption and violence, though, Griessel is the only one in his unit “who knew how it felt to work in a broken system. He had been through it all before.” The elite group he works with now is less heroic than its defiant nickname, the Hawks, would suggest. When a fellow officer sees them arrive at a murder scene, his response is, “These were the Hawks […] the crème de la crème. A vetgat, windgat and a dronkgat. The fat, the vain, and the drunk.” The fat and the vain are, respectively, an ambitious and talented black woman and a township veteran who constantly looks for the easy solution to any situation.
The story begins with the discovery that a mysterious foreigner has disappeared from a rural guesthouse, where his armed bodyguards and a night watchman are found dead. The only clue is a cobra trademark engraved on shell casings found at the scene. The missing man’s British passport leads Griessel into a maze of diplomatic and security services. An overlapping narrative thread follows Tyrone Kleinbooi, a young pickpocket on the prowl for victims. When Tyrone ventures too close to the security cameras at a shopping center, it lands him in the mall cops’ custody, but he escapes in the chaos following the sudden appearance of a gunman in the mall’s security office. The same cobra shell casings are left behind at the mall, complicating the picture for Griessel and his team, who struggle to deal with the escalating violence before the kidnap victim is killed and the hit man leaves the country. And Tyrone is on the run for the rest of the novel, with the killer in hot pursuit.
Meyer’s novels have an insistent forward motion, and the ones featuring Captain Griessel in particular have a pleasing relentlessness. (Two previous novels in the series, Thirteen Hours and 7 Days, even incorporate this breathless pace into their titles.) Cobra is also in this vein, because of the intertwined stories of the frantic police investigation and the clever pickpocket’s desperate attempt to save his life. The ultimate convergence of the two threads of the story leads to a complex chase sequence on the Cape Town Metrorail. Adding to the tension is Griessel’s own desperate attempt to resolve his own insecurities, not only in his professional life but also in his struggle to live up to the expectations of the Afrikaner pop star with whom he has become romantically involved.
Both these novels are very effective crime fiction, and both are darkly skeptical about Cape Town’s social environment: its poverty, inequality, corruption, greed, and gang warfare. Water Music, partly because of the intractable and twisted nature of the crimes that Hart investigates, is the more pessimistic of the two. Cobra has some of the innate uplift of the thriller genre; the rapidity of the story and the appealing quality of the characters (particularly the pickpocket, the overweight female cop, and Griessel himself) leave the reader in a somewhat less dark place. (Water Music ultimately puts Hart and the reader in a very dark place indeed, both literally and emotionally, when she becomes trapped underground.) Both books end with a resolution of sorts for their main characters. Water Music concludes with a memorial service that offers a bit of consolation. Cobra’s conclusion is propelled by challenges that two of the cops propose to their colleagues: visions of a possible route toward a more just and civil society. Orford and Meyer exemplify the vitality and social conscience of South African crime fiction as well as the continuing engagement of noir with some of the dangerous dead ends and blind alleys of today’s world.