Crime writer Mike Nicol, whose new book is just out, will be at the Franschhoek Literary Festival (May 13-15). The author of 24 books, his thrillers by him are published in the UK and US as well as South Africa, and have been translated into several languages. Hammerman: Walking Shadow (Umuzi) is, he says, the last book in his series of five featuring private eye Fish Fish and former Spy Vicki Kahn. I spoke to Jennifer Crocker.
You started out as a journalist and now you have a large number of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry books behind you. What made you flick the switch?
Actually, my writing career started with poetry during my teens. Everything I submitted to magazines such as English Alive was rejected, which might be why I continued writing poetry. There is nothing like rejection to make you say, “Sod you. I’ll get published.” My next move was into journalism, and being a journalist was the best thing that could have happened – it opened the world (and those parts of South Africa that were hidden by apartheid). Also, I got to meet and interview a variety of people and that is invaluable for anyone hoping to also write fiction. The fiction was not so much a switch from journalism as something I’d always intended to do in parallel.
How many books are there in the Fish Fish series? And it seems this is the last one? [Interviewer briefly grief-stricken that this is the last book in this series]
There are five books: Of Cops and Robbers (2013), Agents of the State (2016), sleeping (2018), The Rabbit Hole (2021), and hammerman (2022). And, yes, it states quite clearly on hammerman‘s cover that it is “one last case” for Fish Pescado and Vicki Kahn.
hammerman is a triumph of excellent writing. How do you form the characters that appear in your books? Do you start with character development and then move on to the plot?
With this series I had two characters – Fish the surfing private investigator and Vicki the lawyer/spy – so the plots were going to be determined by the kind of work they did. With hammerman, I had long been fascinated by the assassination of the Swedish prime minister Olof Palme in 1986, and with the persistent chatter that a South African hit squad had been involved. So I decided to incorporate the assassination into a contemporary story. As you know, this inclusion of historical events is not a new device for me. The Dulcie September assassination in Paris has featured in fictional form in some of the earlier books in this series (Of Cops and Robbers and Agents of the State), as have other real events. The thing with a series is that you have the characters and they are in search of a story. Of course, for the first book in a series, the story is shaped by the characters as they emerge from the shadows, but even then they are part of a general notion that is as vague as “What would it be like to write a PI /spynovel?”
Your early novels are focused on crimes, but this series deals with what is going on in the country – the political rot. Obviously, there is a lot of research in these books. How does an author get the lowdown on possible scenarios?
The research is really nothing more than reading the daily news and whatever non-fiction books are published that dissect the state of the country. And, as you know, there are many of these. Although our government provides a constant string of criminal stories, it is impossible for any novelist to compete with these outrageous acts of theft, corruption, and malfeasance. But what we can do is take the criminal ethos and turn it into stories for our characters. Crime fiction is not reality. It is fantasy. And it has a happy ending. In fact, in crime fiction you can do what you can’t legally do in reality. For instance, one of the conventions of crime fiction is having one character kill another. Sometimes it can be hugely satisfying whacking certain characters. The other thing with crime fiction, and this series, is that I wanted to write what James Ellroy calls a “novelistic history.” In other words, a fictional version of our times – a common approach by almost all crime writers who base their novels on current events. I belong to that group of writers who write because of social injustice in their societies. And crime fiction, it seems to me, tackles these issues and, at the same time, entertains it. It can be read on the beach. Because as entertainment – whether it is set in Cape Town or Los Angeles – it is nothing but characters caught up in a thrilling plot. That’s the complexity of the genre. My fictional history I’m calling “Democracy”. It starts with the Bishop series (1994-2011), then gets picked up by the Fish and Vicki series (2012-2020) … What comes next? Well, I’m working on it.
One of my favorite characters is “The Voice”. It’s a tricky thing to create a fully fledged character none of the characters have every met? Characters really spring to life through the things they say.
Fortunately The Voice was easy to hear, and then to imagine. Also, her case officer, Mart Velaze, is continually imagining what she looks like and where she is so there are different takes on her physical shape and where she might be stationed. It was also really enjoyable writing her de ella – she served as a kind of moral compass and had an idea of right and wrong.
Hammerman by Mike Nicol.
In hammerman you dig deep into the corrupt world of spies, and some of the characters are pretty damn scary, but in each of them, I found a small (perhaps) very small glimmer of redemption?
I hope there were small signs of goodness in all of them. Although it is highly enjoyable writing characters that are predominantly evil, that is just too easy. The “glimmer of redemption” gives the character substance because, without that, all you have is a stereotype.
Your style is sparse and full of detail at the same time. How do you manage that? A sentence may be short, but I am immediately in the place. Do you do a lot of rewrites?
I am a slow writer, and, yes, there is a lot of rewriting. My focus is on nouns and verbs as that gives the sentence action and detail. I try not to burden the prose with adjectives and adverbs. The short sentences were a deliberate choice for my crime fiction because I needed pace, and short sentences do that. But, like long sentences, the short sentences link together and create a rhythm that moves the reader from one sentence to the next. Poetry taught me that rhythm is incredibly important. Without it the story falls flat.
In this book, you use silence as a device. There are times when characters go quiet, instead of commentary in Fish’s head. It’s a brilliant device, that offers as many red herrings as the plot does.
Novels can get very jabbery if the characters comment continually and at great length about what is going on. With crime fiction, the intention is to release information gradually to keep up the tension and suspense so silence becomes a valuable device. Secrets are hidden in the silence. Then again we don’t always have a response to what happens to us. Sometimes we are left without words. We go silent. There is a beautifully illustrated children’s book by David Quimet called I Go Quietwhere an introverted girl wanders through a noisy world and her silence opens up possibilities.
Generally speaking, do you think that the current drama in the state security cluster will be resolved or have we lost that battle?
I am an eternal optimist and I believe everything can be fixed. That said, it is going to take a new bunch of people with a social conscience to reconstitute not only that cluster but the entire civil service. Is that bunch of people in the wings? Who knows. At the moment there is no evidence of their presence. All I can say is that the current individuals are incompetent and corrupt bullshitters. And that holds for most in our government.
The destruction of dreams and the beliefs we have about those we love or think we know needs a deft hand. It goes to characterisation, I imagine, but is every character’s fully formed in your mind? Do you have strong mental images of them? (As a reader I know that I do.)
As a writer and a teacher of writing I have thought long and hard about characters and, really, I am constantly amazed at how they write themselves. The more you think about them, the more present they become. All I know is that they will often appear unbidden, sometimes with a name, sometimes the name will come later and they will say something and what they say will become them. From then on it’s a matter of playing dolls: you dress them, give them houses, cars, things to do, and then you let them play together. Obviously in a crime novel that play can be quite nasty. To get back to your point, for me, the overriding connection to the character is their voice. But not long ago my granddaughter challenged me with a name she had invented and said, “Put that character in your novel.” Happily, I found that you can work from a name to a character.
Do you enjoy teaching your online masterclasses?
The simple answer is, yes, hugely. I’ve been extremely lucky. Helping writers have been a late development in my career and couldn’t have come at a better time. The masterclass is now in its tenth year and a goodly number of careers have had their roots in the class. There are some writers who have been there for years. The class is now part of the way they write. When writers from the class land publishing contracts it’s really the best news in the world for me.
And the worst one: Anything else you want to say?
Yeah, there is actually: Surf’s up!
Franschhoek Literary Festival:
On Friday 13 May at the FLF at 13:00, in the Old School Hall, Fred Khumalo talks SA crime fiction with the writers of two fiery new thrillers, Andrew Brown (The Heist Men) and Mike Nicol (Hammerman). How do they devise all their twists? And how do they reimagine the chaos of real-world policing in SA?
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