Mike Nicol, regarded as one of South Africa’s greatest crime thriller writers, gave local bookworms a real treat when he spoke about his latest book, Of Cops and Robbers, at the Literary Tea at Fish Hoek Library at the end of October.
Describing his life as a young boy growing up in Erica Ave in Fish Hoek, he said: “My world was the valley – the vlei and the bush and the sand dunes. It was safe then to go alone into these areas at the age of 9 or 10. We were a bunch of kids running wild, our favorite game being ‘Cops and Robbers’. We would switch roles when the robbers got tired. It seems that this is what has happened years later. Today, who are the cops and who are the robbers?!”
Artifacts found in the dunes and in Peers Cave stimulated his imagination. “I would think about the lives that had created the artifacts. This business of imagining other lives became incredibly important to me as a novelist. I can never win an argument as I see the other person’s point of view! Imagining these lives filled me with the desire to write.
My favourite books and characters when I was a boy included Ben Hur by Lew Wallace, published in 1880, the early Robert Louise Stevenson books, The Saint novels by Leslie Charteris and the Hardy Boys. I also loved books on archeology.”
Inspiration for ‘Of Cops and Robbers’ came from various sources. “I edited Peter Harris’s ‘In a Different Time’ and was fascinated by the term ‘Icing Unit’ and the people in it.” The Icing Unit was an apartheid death squad. In ‘Of Cops and Robbers’ Mike Nicol covers the unit’s most high profile killings from the late 1970’ onwards.
“After doing a reading in Cape Town, I had lunch with one of the people from the Icing Unit. He was one of the most charming, friendly, outgoing , ordinary people I have ever met. Then I had an idea: what if I created a Nat government hit squad and put them into the book and then killed off all the members except one ? What would that person be like? I thought I would use the Smit murders to kick it off.
On the 22 Nov 1977 Dr Robert Smit and his wife were murdered in their home in Springs. Sprayed all over the kitchen wall of their house were the letters RAU TEM. No one knows what this stood for or who committed the crime. Robert Smit was a rising Nat politician about to fight an election. It is speculated that he was about to release information about the transfer of South African gold from London to Geneva – information that would rock the government to the top.”
He went onto to describe subsequent events – the suicide in 1990 of Phil Freeman, one of the three security men suspected of being involved in the Smit murders and the “suicide” of a second man, Dries Verwey, who was found dead in Port Elizabeth, shot in the left side of his head yet he was right-handed.
Also incorporated into the novel are other instances where hit squads had been involved: the massacre in Swaziland at an MK safe house, the killing of the Cradock Four and the murder of Dulcie September outside the ANC office in Paris. “These things kept resonating and I felt they should find their way into the book.
Then I heard about the ‘Miss Landmine Survivor Contest’ held in Angola. Women without arms and legs had to parade in a series of beauty pageants, the final competition being held in Luanda with the winner receiving a prosthesis supplied by the Scandinavian countries. This was too good to let go so I had to put this into the book as well.
Another incident that needed to be included was the theft of the horn of a rhino in the SA Museum in Cape Town. Little museums throughout South Africa are being raided and our heritage being stolen. I tied this up with the story of the South African Defence Force shooting rhino and elephant to stockpile the horns and tusks for the purchase of ammunition with which to continue the wars on our borders.”
Most of the novel is set in Muizenberg. “I used to surf at Muizenberg beach until the waves got too big and I could see Death out there! I am still hoping for a free breakfast from Knead for all the exposure I have given them!”
Commenting on the names of his characters, such as one of his main characters in ‘Of Cops and Robbers’, Fish Pescado, Mike remarked that he loves strange names and puns. “I go about collecting them. Writers steal everything, your watches, gestures, dialogues. I have the names of all those who have given me bad reviews. They will all appear in future books , and they will be tortured and die!” he said with a laugh.
In reply to a question from the audience, Mike said that he started off writing poetry as a child. “It was one of the best things that happened to me. It is quick and easy to do as opposed to writing a novel. I continued writing poetry into my late 20’s, deciding that at 30I would have had enough life experience to write a novel. I learnt that in writing poetry you are working with sound. You don’t need to understand the poems but you need to feel their rhythm. There is sound in novels but it is more subtle. One has to train the prose ear to pick up the rhythm. Crime is violent. The crime writer needs to be violent with the language, cutting it up, chopping sentences.
Some of us are lucky. We see the world as a story and could not describe life in terms of facts. However, the most important things in a book are the characters. Don’t worry about the plot – it will evolve. Conflict is the essence of any novel. When the characters are in conflict the story will happen. One also needs to place the scenes in order. Two years ago I started the entire story again as the plot was not working. When you keep on going with the crazy belief that it will work out it will. But then you also have to be with the book on a daily basis.”
Apart from being a best-selling author, Mike Nicol is an online lecturer for GetSmarter, teaching courses in creative writing and non-fiction. His earlier crime novels are:
Black Heart, Umuzi, Cape Town, 2011
Killer Country, Umuzi, Cape Town, 2010
Payback, Umuzi, Cape Town, 2008
Out to Score (co-written with Joanne Hichens), Umuzi, Cape Town, 2006
He has also published poetry and non-fiction.
The speaker at the Nov Literary tea at Fish Hoek Library is Michelle Rowe, author of ‘What hidden lies’, which is set in Fish Hoek.
Copyright: Viv von der Heyden