South Africa boasts a growing number of crime fiction writers – think Mike Nicol, Joanne Hichens, Margie Orford and of course Deon Meyer, whose latest novel Cobra is in the book stores.
But Meyer does not believe, as has been suggested, that our writing is going to rival Nordic noir soon.
“People in Europe still have fairly negative perceptions of South Africa, so it’s a real struggle to present novels set in this country as entertainment. It’s difficult to make SA stories as sexy as those written by the likes of Stieg Larsson or Michael Connelly – South African writers have a much more limited audience.”
We’re talking in the library of the Cape Grace Hotel, where Meyer is working hard at publicising his new book. As one journalist leaves, another arrives, testament to the novelist’s huge importance in the thriller genre. And that’s not just in South Africa – the American best-selling author Michael Connelly has said of Meyer: “This guy is really good”, while the London Daily Mail has described him as “one of the best crime writers on the planet”. They don’t come much better than that.
Meyer says the challenge of selling a book from South Africa will always be bigger than a European book, say. “Still, you can make good money selling just in the local market, which is relatively small. I sell around 70 000 copies of each book locally, that’s both the English and Afrikaans versions.”
When you realise that a book that sells 5 000 in this country is considered a best-seller, you get some idea how successful Meyer is.
Cobra is Meyer’s ninth novel and the fourth to feature Benny Griessel, the world-weary and just-about-ex-alcoholic Hawks detective. Benny is one of the first to arrive at a Franschhoek guest house where three bodyguards and a waiter have been shot dead. There is no sign of the Brit they were guarding. The only clue is the cobra’s head engraved on each shell case.
Not long afterwards professional pickpocket Tyrone Kleinbooi – who is raising money to pay for his sister Nadia’s university fees – steals a wallet from a tourist at the V&A Waterfront, and is seized by two security guards who drag him off to the security control room. While they’re questioning him, a man walks in and opens fire. Tyrone flees, still carrying the wallet, with the shooter after him. All that is left behind in the control room are five dead security men – and five shell casings, each engraved with a cobra’s head.
Benny and the Hawks quickly discover that the missing Brit left behind a fake passport, and that he is really a Cambridge maths professor, one who has developed an algorithm to track terrorists through the international banking system.
Once the Hawks have made the link with the Waterfront shootings, they have to figure out what the pickpocket, caught on CCtv cameras, could possibly have stolen from the tourist that was so valuable. Then Nadia Kleinbooi disappears, and Tyrone and the Hawks are both desperate to find her.
It gets very tangled after that, but it’s a terrifically suspenseful thriller, with some great characters, notably Tyrone and the gutsy Captain Mbali Kaleni, the only woman in the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation violent crimes team – short, fat, angry, pathologically opposed to swearing and always clutching a huge shiny black leather handbag.
There are also some laughs, such as as when detective Cupido tries to persuade Benny to get an Android smartphone. “Just don’t go and get a Samsung,” he says. “Those guys are the new Illuminati, taking over the world, gimmick by gimmick. Never trust a phone company that makes fridges, pappie.”
Meyer, a former journalist, PR and brand consultant, began writing full time in 2008, and hasn’t looked back. As a journalist he met cops like Benny, but Meyer is quick to emphasise that Benny is “a figment of my imagination”.
Many writers create characters and let their stories develop from there; with Meyer it’s the opposite.
“Benny serves the story, not the other way around – to my mind it’s dangerous to force a story on to a character. I find the story first and then decide which character to choose. Then there is a process of mutual influence with the character influencing the story and the story influencing the character, but the story is the most important.”
So how does he write?
“I don’t plot it all out beforehand. Although I know more or less where to start and where to end, it’s important to allow the process to happen.
“I do a lot of research, and if the research has given me a better option for the ending I’ll write towards that. I do have a broad direction in mind, and I do plan two or so chapters ahead, but in my head, not on pinboards.”
His process seems to be working. Meyer’s books have been translated into 28 languages, and he has, he says, a very good English translator – KL Seegers – who is able to make the dialogue of Afrikaans-speaking South African cops sound like English-speaking South African cops.
“It has to read not like a British or American novel set here, but like a South African novel set here.”
And it does. The English translation is full of South African colloquialisms and references, which are great for local readers, but they’re irrelevant to the story, Meyer says. “If a book’s going to stand or fall by local subtleties it’s not going to make it very far.”
Currently Meyer is about halfway through his next Benny Griessel novel. He says he always wanted to write novels – he wrote his first at 14. “There was no role model for thrillers writers in Afrikaans then. I just hoped to get a novel published in Afrikaans and then perhaps get another one done – only looking as far as the next book.
“It’s been an incredible journey.”
* Cobra is published by Jonathan Ball