South African crime novelist Jassy Mackenzie hit the ground running with her 2008 publication, Random Violence, featuring gutsy PI Jade de Jong. Set in contemporary Johannesburg, the novel earned local acclaim. South Africa’s Sunday Times declared that this debut “excels in its ability to translate our propensity for violent crime into a clever plot that could take place only in South Africa.” Just released in the United States, Random Violence earned a starred review in Publishers Weekly, with the critic terming it a “triumphant debut,” and further noting, “Readers will wish Jade a long fictional career.”
Mackenzie’s 2009 title, My Brother’s Keeper, a finalist in the Best Paperback Original category of the International Thriller Awards, is another gritty novel featuring a psychopathic villain and also set in Johannesburg, but this one does not feature Jade. Mackenzie reprises her resilient PI in Stolen Lives, in which Jade is hired as a bodyguard by a wealthy housewife whose husband has disappeared. That novel is scheduled for a 2010 publication in South Africa.
Jassy, welcome to Scene of the Crime, and thanks for coming on board to investigate spirit of place in crime fiction.
First, could you describe your connection to Johannesburg?
I’m originally from Zimbabwe, but my family moved to Johannesburg when I was eight. Apart from a few years spent overseas, I’ve lived here ever since. Jo’burg is an enormous, sprawling city but I love to drive, and over the years I think I’ve been to just about every part of it.
The juxtaposition of wealth and poverty makes it a fascinating, if somewhat disturbing, social study. In ten minutes, you can drive from the most ostentatious five-star hotel in the wealthy CBD of Sandton, to an informal settlement with tumbledown shacks cobbled together from cardboard and corrugated iron.
Jo’burg has a dark side – its high violent crime rate – and this is what makes it such a compelling location for a thriller writer. The city came into existence when vast gold deposits were discovered in the Witwatersrand basin. Unlike most other major cities, it is nowhere near a waterway or even a water supply. It was built in an arid, treeless dustbowl. One of the most interesting facts about Johannesburg is that, over the years, its residents planted so many trees that today it is officially classified as a forest.
If Cape Town can be compared to San Francisco, Johannesburg can definitely be compared to New York. The city has an amazing energy, even if it is somewhat shallow and superficial. Everything here has to be big and bling, from the cars to the hairstyles to the houses, and this translates to our crime as well. Threaten a Jo’burg resident with a knife and he’ll laugh at you. When we get robbed, it’s by large gangs armed with automatic weapons.
Did you consciously set out to use Johannesburg as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
I set out to make Jo’burg a character in my books. I wanted to paint a picture of the city for international readers, from its gridlocked heart to its wild rural outskirts; from the beggars holding cardboard signs at street corners to the new rich speeding uncaringly by in their SUVs. The city has so many faces – the beautiful old Parktown mansions designed by renowned architect Herbert Baker, the elegant span of the recently built Nelson Mandela Bridge – the largest cable-stayed bridge in Southern Africa. Then there are the crumbling buildings in Hillbrow, long abandoned by their original owners, their walls patterned with graffiti and blackened by rogue fires. And, of course, those dreadful high-walled, fake-Tuscan housing estates that are mushrooming in the wealthy northern suburbs and beginning to characterize the “new” Jo’burg.
Some of my scenes are set in specific places and I have enormous fun researching and describing these. The Catz Pajamas in Melville, which appears in Random Violence, is a real restaurant and it really does serve the best nachos in town. Other locations are fictitious, but they are still based on the reality that I see and read about every day. For me, scene setting is a lot like dreaming. In my dreams, some scenes are crystal clear and familiar, while others are shadowy and indistinct – and, of course, any dream can turn into a nightmare.
How does Jade de Jong interact with her surroundings? Is she a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster? And conversely, how does the setting affect your protagonist?
Jade de Jong, the heroine of Random Violence and its just-completed sequel Stolen Lives, is a die-hard Jo’burg woman. Like me, she loves the city despite its flaws. Like me, she’s been a victim of crime herself. The difference is that I stay behind a computer and write, while Jade ventures out onto the streets to investigate crimes and occasionally dispense her own brand of vigilante justice.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
I’ve been fortunate that both my books – Random Violence and My Brother’s Keeper – have had excellent local reviews. A reviewer from the Sunday Times was kind enough to say, with tongue firmly in cheek, “Mackenzie deserves a vote of thanks from Jozi residents for restoring their city to its rightful position at the top of the crime pile.”
Random Violence has been translated into German, and has had good reviews from critics in that country as well. I think that with the Fifa World Cup football taking place later this year, there’s a surge of international interest in South Africa, which is great news for local thriller writers.
Of the novels you have set in Johannesburg, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
From Random Violence:
“Whiteboy shifted his weight in the seat and turned the heater down. He slowed at a traffic light. This was Diepsloot. On his left. A dark, smoky labyrinth of tin shacks and cardboard walls and the shells of cars. From the smell of it, the residents weren’t only burning wood to keep warm. They were burning anything they could lay their hands on, from garbage to car tires. A few houses had electric light, but their power was stolen, channeled down from the main lines via illegal cables. Every so often, he knew, some power thief would hit the headlines by getting fried when trying that trick.
“Taxis bumped off the tarmac and stopped and started in an endless rhythm, floods of passengers emerging from the doors, hunched and hurried. He saw two prostitutes standing at the light. Their short, brightly colored skirts revealed brown chunky legs, and their arms were wrapped around their bodies for warmth.
“’Okay,’ Whiteboy said to himself. ‘Where does a white man go to find trouble in this place?’”
And another one:
“The Townview police station was dusty and dirty, with yellowing notices on the wall informing the public about things nobody bothered to read. David shook his head as he thought what Jade’s father would do if he saw the average police station today and how it compared to the ones he had commanded.
“Commissioner de Jong would have exploded in a bout of furious energy, a trait that Jade had inherited and, because of that, always amused him. He would have scrubbed the place down, put in a request for new chairs, ripped the old posters off the walls. He would have repaired and patched and given the place a fresh coat of paint. Removed those dusty old blinds and brightened the place up. And knowing Jade’s father, if it still wasn’t bright enough, he would have knocked another couple of windows into the wall himself without bothering to ask permission first.
“David’s greeting was not returned by the large lady constable at the front desk. She looked up at him with dull eyes.
“’I’d like to see your station commander.’
“’In connection with?’
“’Private matter. And urgent,’ he added, as she heaved herself to her feet and lumbered across the room. She was unfit and unkempt and her uniform was stretched to its limit in every direction.”
I love thrillers with a strong sense of place, and I’ve always believed that place is an essential aspect of a crime novel because crime is a reflection of society, and society in turn is a product of its environment.
My favorite writers today include Lee Child, Jeffery Deaver and Harlan Coben, as well as local author Deon Meyer. I remember being spellbound by the descriptions of the Florida Keys in John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee series, and fascinated by Edward X Delaney’s New York in the novels by Lawrence Sanders.
Jassy, once again many thanks for taking the time to be with Scene of the Crime, and good luck with the U.S. publication of Random Violence.
For more information, visit Jassy’s Web site.