DIANE DE BEER
With issues and idiosyncrasies like state capture and Donald Trump dominating the news cycles almost to the exclusion of anything else, it feels as if in the realm of fiction, especially writers of thrillers and espionage must be having so much fun. When fact becomes stranger than fiction, doesn’t that give especially a thriller writer carte blanche?
“Oddly enough,” says author Mike Nicol whose latest book Sleeper (Umuzi) is the third in a series that began with Of Cops & Robbers and Agents of the State, “the worse the behaviour of our leaders, the more difficult it is to write fiction that reflects contemporary situations.”
Trump, he says, is so outrageous that he cannot be placed in anything but farce while Zuma was slightly different and more in the manner of dictators as his period in office was characterised by the deliberate and malicious plundering of the state. “You must remember that readers aren’t that interested in the fantastical. They want their thriller fiction to be logical and deadly and they certainly don’t want the outlandish.”
That means instead that life has suddenly become that much harder for crime writers because of what is happening in the real world. But he is having fun – to his surprise. As someone who switched to crime writing following a slew of novels and non-fiction writing, he wasn’t expecting that. “Don’t get me wrong, it is no easier than any other type of writing, but it is a lot more fun,” he accentuates.
He reckons he has the best time with the dialogue. In Sleeper there were great opportunities – with the sleeper herself and two characters called Bill and Ben. This is exactly what he means by fun. These two are a reference to Bill and Ben, the flowerpot men in the popular children’s story. “As I had been exposed to the antics of Bill and Ben thanks to my granddaughter, I thought why not haul them in to do service in a spy novel?”
You have to love that in-between all the madness and mayhem, two of the characters have been snatched from a children’s book!
Those familiar with Nicol’s writing will know his characters but if you need to catch up, Nicol supplies some back story. While each book is a standalone and can be read in isolation, the main characters – Fish Pescado, a private investigator, and Vicki Kahn, a lawyer and spy – are at the heart of the books. “Their relationship is the link from book to book,” explains the author. “There are walk on parts by secret operative Mart Velaze and his handler the mysterious Voice, who have featured in earlier novels. Also, Krista from Power Play, the daughter of Mace Bishop, who was the protagonist of the initial Revenge Trilogy. And here Mace flies in for a small part in Sleeper,” he elaborates.
“I had always wanted to develop a universe of characters, which I could call on from time to time. Unfortunately, they’re only human and for some of them Death comes calling,” he says ominously. That’s precisely what makes the books intriguing. If you have been following the different trilogies, you have come to know even the side characters well because at some point they were centre stage. If one of them is killed, as a reader, you are much more invested because of previous meetings.
So, bizarrely in a world where the characters often don’t feel that much for one another and are often easily expendable, the reader has an attachment because of a character’s back story. It keeps you reading though because of the unpredictability and Nicol’s seeming indifference for his (and our) darlings. It’s as it should be.
Speaking about thriller writing in general, it all started for him when trying to find a good fit as writer. “The house of crime fiction has many rooms and my initial venture into the genre was into a sub-category, the security industry, which hadn’t yet had much play at that point.”
But as we live in a lightning fast, changing world while his first, the Revenge Trilogy, confronted such issues as Pagad bombings, arms trading, land claims, farm murders, corruption in real estate development and then drugs and abalone poaching in Power Play, with Of Cops & Robbers he found a new tack. “The focus here was to look at the atrocities of the apartheid hit squads, rhino horn and elephant tusk poaching then and now, before moving into the corruption of the current government and human trafficking, particularly during the Zuma years in Agents of the State.
“Once the major crime in the country became government crime it seemed logical to shift into a form of espionage fiction – thrillers by another name. And this is where Sleeper finds its centre: the corruption of government officials in positions of power and what happens to whistle-blowers.”
There is so much going around at present but as usual, this savvy writer is pushing all the right buttons. His writing has always been exceptional and in this genre, he has found his niche with great aplomb. Both the writing and story are fast, feisty and furious and with Cape Town (where he lives) as the backdrop, it’s visual and familiar to everyone living here. If in the earlier books, the story might have felt far-fetched, the real world has raced ahead so briskly that far-fetched has become an outmoded concept.
As Nicol has established not only his slacker hero in the minds of readers but a clutch of colourful characters that keep us entertained, if this is your introduction, perhaps start with the first in the trilogy and work your way to number three.
There won’t be too much of a gap between this one and yet another encounter with Fish and Vicki, so for the moment, he is sticking with them. “The characters are the real plot manipulators but there invariably and inevitably comes a point where I don’t know what is going on or how to resolve things. This is about two thirds of the way in. Weeks of despair follow until the obvious plot resolution suddenly dawns. And it is always obvious. The obvious, I have discovered, is difficult to see. So I guess you could say that the process is a tough one.”
When he has time to tune out and get into his own reading, Nicol has an eclectic smorgasbord to choose from: “A variety of non-fiction and fiction. Just recently I read McMafia by Misha Glenny and The New Confessions of an Economic Hitman by John Perkins.
“On the fiction front I have been immersed in espionage novels by Charles McCarry, Robert Littel, Olen Steinhauer, Charles Cumming, John le Carre, Chris Pavone. My crime fiction reading encountered the French writer Pierre Lemaitre (who probably wrote the first of the now popular psychological thrillers involving a woman, Blood Marriage) but who has also written three really good police procedurals (Alex, Irene and Camille). Another interesting top crime writer this time from Australian is Candice Fox, especially her Crimson Lake.”