By Stephen Coan
The name of Margaret von Klemperer will be familiar to Witness readers; it's frequently appended to book reviews and other articles of a literary nature. Which is not surprising, after all she is the Witness book's editor.
Now Margaret has written a book herself, a crime novel titled Just a Dead Man. Producing a book was something she had been planning for a while. "I deliberately retired early so I could try my hand at writing a book," she says. "I decided if I don't try this it will never happen. I knew I couldn't do it while working full-time."
Margaret's very first full-time job was with a British publisher. "I was a very lowly minion," she recalls. Nevertheless she did once get to see John Le Carre walk by. "We all went rather gaga. As a young man he was very beautiful."
She also witnessed Evan Hunter (aka Ed McBain, author of the 87th Precinct novels) kick a filing cabinet. Was he angry? "No, he was drunk." On another occasion Norman Mailer came through her office. "He was on his way to get drunk."
Beautiful, drunk, or soon to be drunk authors aside Margaret admits to having always been interested in writing and books.
After a bringing up a family Margaret returned to the workplace in 1990 as the education reporter on The Witness. In 1993 she became arts editor, a portfolio she held until her retirement in 2008. Since then she has been the offshore editor of the Witness book's page that appears every Wednesday.
So, though not totally retired, Margaret now had enough time to set about writing. Just a Dead Man is her first book to be published but it was not the first that she wrote. "I tried my hand at an earlier novel," she says. "It was perhaps more literary and more ambitious than Just a Dead Man. I got encouraging feedback but local publishers passed on it and suggested I send it instead to British publishers as it was set half in South Africa and half in the UK."
Instead Margaret decided to move on to another book, this time an out-and-out crime novel. "There was a crime in the first book, but it was not a crime novel," she says.
Margaret admits to reading a lot of crime - "I like it" - but how did she get the idea for her own foray into the genre? "I was walking the dogs on World's View when they went hurtling off the path to investigate something in the bush. I thought: 'Oh, wouldn't it be awful if it was a dead body'. Then I thought ‘that would make a good starting point for a story’."
And that's how Just a Dead Man begins when artist and teacher Laura Marsh is visited by friend and fellow artist Daniel Moyo. He takes her dog for a walk and stumbles across a body in the forestry plantation close to her home. Enter the police in the persons of Inspector Pillay and Sergeant Dhlomo and it's not long before Moyo is arrested as the prime suspect. However Laura is certain of his innocence and despite being warned off by the cops begins to do a little detecting of her own. This uncovers connections to titanium mining in Pondoland - currently a controversial issue – and, further back in time, the sinking of the SS Mendi in the English Channel in 1917 when over 600 men of the South African Native Labour Corps lost their lives. "I wanted something to tie in history and the ownership of culture," Margaret says. "Our history needs to be told. It gets lost and I think it’s important that people should know their history."
The book’s characters and plot reflect South Africa's multi-racial and multi-cultural society as well as contemporary concerns such as racism, xenophobia and corruption in high places.
Just a Dead Man is written with confidence in a conversational style - and the setting is Pietermaritzburg: "But it's not an identifiable Pietermaritzburg," says Margaret. "You can't say 'oh, she walked up there'. It is an imaginary Pietermaritzburg - you create the landscape to suit yourself and the plot."
Having got a plot courtesy of walking the dogs Margaret set about writing. "Publishers said you need to find your own voice," she says. "I'm not really sure what that means but I thought if I write in the first person I might manage that."
"Writing in the first person makes for easier writing on one level but it does have its limits - you can only have one point of view."
Margaret didn't construct the plot from beginning to end before writing. "I had a vague idea where it all might lead but I didn't have a plot in diagram form. I don't think I could write like that. It's a cliché but characters do take on a life of their own and you find yourself writing something then thinking no that person wouldn't react like that."
Just a Dead Man took her six months to complete. "I was quite disciplined, trying to write so many words a week. I would write in the morning and then correct in the afternoon."
Crime fiction is always a popular genre for readers but in South Africa it has proved something of a major growth industry of late - think of names like Deon Meyer, Margie Orford, Jassy Mackenzie and Mike Nichol. "I don't think I quite fit into that category," says von Klemperer. "They are much darker. Just a Dead Man is really a throw back to detective fiction rather than the thriller where things have to happen quickly. I'm interested in real people caught up in an unusual situation -- and the puzzle element of detective fiction as opposed to the shock horror of thriller crime fiction."
Just a Dead Man is also funny. "I think humour is important in crime novels," says Margaret. "At the moment, apart from Sarah Lotz, no one in South Africa is bringing humour into crime. If you look at someone like the late UK author Reginald Hill his books featuring the black private detective Joe Sixsmith, as opposed to his better known Dalziel and Pascoe books, are actually very funny."
Margaret admits Hill is a favourite crime writer - "and Sarah Lotz is seriously underrated." She also cites Kingsley Amis's The Riverside Villas Murder as a good example of a humorous but convincing detective novel. "It's set in the 1930s - itself the heyday of escapist crime fiction with the likes of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers."
Mention is made of the late James McClure, once a crime reporter on the Witness, who wrote a series of novels set in Pietermaritzburg (renamed Trekkersburg) featuring Lieutenant Tromp Kramer and Sergeant Mickey Zondi. "He was also a crime writer that was funny," remarks von Klemperer. "I feel strongly about that. If everyone went about being gloomy life would be appalling.”
McClure's novels also provided an accurate mirror to South Africa under apartheid. "Crime fiction can also be used to reflect a society," says von Klemperer. "It reflects peoples concerns and in this country people are concerned about their safety. Crime fiction also looks at why people do the things they do. Though I didn't sit down to write a treatise on the state of the nation with Just a Dead Man you can't help reflecting what's going on around you. Popular fiction can do that, it doesn't have to be totally frothy."
* Just a Dead Man by Margaret Von Klemperer is published by Jacana.
This article first appeared in The Witness.