THE increasingly thin line between the good and the bad guys in our society dominates Mike Nicol’s latest pulse-racing thriller, Of Cops and Robbers. Much of the time you’re not sure which side of that line his characters are, as you feverishly turn pages to find out — exactly like it is in real life, with blue-light brigades that turn out to be robbers. And just as criminologist Liza Grobler spelt it out in her recent book, When Cops Become Robbers.
The line between fact and fiction is, worryingly, blurring. But, Of Cops and Robbers is not merely about the present. It also fictionalises our recent evil past, one case being the murder, 35 years ago, of a high-level National Party politician, Robert Smit and his wife Jean-Cora.
It is speculated that they were professionally executed on the orders of the National Party government, in spite of attempts to make it look amateurish.
Smit supposedly had information about gold bullion in foreign banks that was apparently connected to the then finance minister, Dr Nico Diederichs. Rumour has it that Smit planned to make it public. The moment I read that the letters RAU TEM had been sprayed on the wall above the dead couple’s bodies, I knew Nicol was taking us back to the actual murder of the Smits.
The resultant storm of publicity about the murders in November 1977 is far from forgotten. "It was such an extraordinary murder," recalls Nicol, a journalist at the time, "and what intrigues me is that it was raised at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in the 1990s."
He reflects that when the Smits’ daughter tried to find out what had happened to her parents at the TRC, "she received death threats. Yet, it was 20 years on and there was a new democratic government in power. So, that murder still resonates to this day."
So does the existence of what Nicol calls an Icing Unit in his book. They were security branch men who were implicated in 2006 as being responsible for the hit. "Two of them died, and a third man lives in Australia. No application has been made to extradite him."
Stranger and stranger. No wonder Nicol has flipped back a few pages into our past, as well as writing pertinently about our present. The book also alludes to Eugene de Kock’s death squad murders on Vlakplaas, to the assassination of the Cradock Four and the murder in Paris in 1987 of anti-apartheid activist Dulcie September.
But, as Nicol firmly stresses, his book is fundamentally sited in the present, for which he’s created all sorts of fascinating personalities, one of whom is former police commissioner Jacob Mkezi. He’s a truly awful man who wears crocodile skin shoes and drives a Hummer through Cape Town as he looks for little boys to hire for sex.
"One has to create horrid characters. I did so in this case to show that corruption didn’t just stop in April 1994 when the democratic government took over. It continues. And it slowly eats away at the moral fibre of those in this government," says Nicol whose often comedic delivery is definitely absent at this point of our conversation.
What Nicol is trying to illustrate is, as US author, William Faulkner, famously wrote, "The past is never dead. It’s not even past."
It is here and it is now, says Nicol, "and that is essentially the philosophy behind this book".
Faulkner’s quote has intrigued Nicol throughout his 18-book writing career. He’s created a story out of it by looking at the Icing Unit and bringing what it did into a contemporary novel.
It’s set in Muizenberg, where he lived many years ago, "in the ghetto, where the houses are right on the street and the place was populated with bergies and surfers".
Nicol was one of the latter. He rode a mean wave, so it’s no surprise that his PI Bartolomeu Pescado, SA’s first surfing detective known as Fish, does so too. Fish has wild surfer hair, quick eyes and a discreet earring in his right lobe. He drinks milk stout, drives a Cortina Perana V6 and shoots straight. Some of this also applies to Nicol.
The novel’s romance comes in the form of strong and gorgeous Indian lawyer, Vicki Kahn. She has an addictive personality and an obsession with cards that sends her, in desperation, to Gamblers Anonymous. At one stage, she’s enticed into a card game by the dreaded Mkezi and it’s hard to breathe as the cards are dealt and Nicol builds the tension.
Other characters include Fish’s mother, Estelle, who is always on his case, continually ringing him from London to demand his help.
Nicol gets the tense dialogue between mother and son bang on. He describes his taut prose as "cut up punctuation doing violence to the language while violence plays out on the page".
The book is essentially made up of two plots — the Icing Unit’s murders and Mkezi’s corruption. The action is set deep in the social fabric of our society down the years. So it includes a massive stash of rhino horn and elephant ivory hidden by the South African army during the Border War, and a present day dehorning of a stuffed museum rhino.
There are rich cities and desperate squatter camps, the Numbers Gangs, drag racing and drug dealing. Naturally there’s murder. Nicol’s never been afraid to pull the trigger and his characters do so often and expertly.
They also drive interesting cars and listen to South African musicians such as Laurie Levine and Jim Neversink as, indeed, does Nicol. He lists the websites of three of the latter’s songs at the back of the book.
There’s a scene so surreal that it could only be fact, in which Mkezi’s entourage strolls across the border into Angola to attend a Miss Landmine beauty competition. A girl on two metal crutches has no legs at all and there’s one who has both legs blown off at the knees, "her stumps tapering". The winner gets a brand new prosthesis — "As far as I can tell the last Miss Landmine beauty pageant was held in Angola in 2008."
The Author’s Note is extensive, and lists the historical events that are alluded to in the book, "which was not my original intention. But the British editor asked me to do so and I think it’s a good idea."
Nicol’s books are published on three continents and have been translated into several languages including French and German. And now, for the first time, he’s been translated into Afrikaans too, with Of Cops and Robbers becoming Dieners and Donners.
In future Nicol plans to move "slightly away from crime to espionage, into the realm of spooks".
What is troubling South Africa "is the suppression of truth", he says, mentioning the secrecy bill, the arms deal, and tenderpreneur-ship — "It’s what’s hidden that fascinates me."
I thought that Nicol had possibly hit a high-water mark with his stunning Revenge Trilogy. But this politicised crime novel shows he has a lot more telling bullets left in his authorial chamber.