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Look out for MARGIE ORFORD

Written by Sue Lord

Look out for Margie Orford, an award-winning journalist and internationally acclaimed writer, is the author of the Clare Hart series. Her novels have been translated into nine languages. She was born in London and grew up in Namibia, the setting for Blood Rose, her highly acclaimed second novel in the series. A Fulbright Scholar, she was educated in South Africa and the United States. She is Executive Vice-President of South African PEN, the patron of Rape Crisis and of the children’s book charity, the Little Hands Trust. She lives in Cape Town.


 How do you feel about being called the Queen of South African Crime Fiction?

I feel rather regal. I hope I am more an Elizabethan queen, than a Boleyn girl. The former will be better for royalties

Some people feel that crime fiction is the only way in which they can raise social issues that they feel very strongly about.  Do you feel that that is true?

I’m a storyteller first and foremost, but murder, cruelty and power have been central to stories since the first fire in the first cave. Crime fiction, though, takes place in the urban mean streets where social issues play out – poverty and affluence, danger for women, the history of a complicated society. So those social issues grow out of that – everybody comes from somewhere. They carry the social with them

How and where do you write?  Are you a disciplined author or are you easily distracted? What is your normal work schedule?

I was given a week as writer in residence at a fabulous boutique hotel in the Cape Winelands – that is my new writing ideal: five star luxury, room service, mini-bar. But if that fantasy doesn’t play out its back to the usual routine – I have a hut in the garden that my architect-husband designed for me. Its perfect – quiet, no internet, at the foot of Table Mountain. Most days I work there. Sometimes I go mad and then I have to go and work in a café. My work schedule never feels normal – it is very odd to spend most   of a year all alone thinking of ways of killing people.

Characterisation, plot or place? Which do you think is the most important?

Character, always. But character is formed by the place in which a person grows up and lives. So place and character – perhaps world-view is a better word – are inextricably linked. Plot, though, is what gets your reader’s heart rate going, it keeps them turning the pages, it keeps them awake. I always think of the two – character/place and plot as two sides of a single sheet of paper. You can look at both, but they are indivisible.

Do you plot beforehand or do you just let the writing flow?

I don’t really plot. I should and I lie and tell my agent and my publishers that I do, but what I do is have a picture of where I’m headed – some kind of action nirvana – and then I write my way to that point. Usually I get hopelessly lost at some point and then I go back and plot in retrospect. Whenever I have plotted it all out it seems so dull, so not how life happens, that I have to ditch it and feel my way in the dark again. I think a great deal more plotting happens in the edit-phase than many writers admit.


Where did Dr Clare Hart and Captain Riedwaan Faizal spring from and what have you in store for them?

Clare Hart is a woman with a clarity of vision that I envy. She also has a Greta Garbo streak that I share – she wants to be alone. She sprang, I suppose, from how I imagined I could be if I was thinner, cleverer and had had fewer children. Riedwaan Faizal is based (weirdly enough) on a cop who detained me when I was a student in the mad South African 1980s. I don’t remember his name – but I remember thinking he was a good man in an impossible situation. That is true of many fictional cops, I think. I like them both so much. I like the fact that Riedwaan Faizal just loves Clare even though she is tricky and repressed. I was thinking about making them marry but I find weddings too depressing. So they will carry on as they are – he’ll want to live with her. She’ll want to be alone.

Your central character is a woman. What made you decide on her as a character? Is there something of Clare Hart in you?

I didn’t plan to have a woman as my main character. Clare Hart was born fully clad in armour – a bit like Athena, wise and fierce. There is quite a bit that I share with Clare Hart – I’m pissed off with women getting murdered. I don’t like the violence that makes the lives of so many children unbearable. I wanted a bit of vengeance and Clare’s considered determination gets her places. She also knows how to listen to people, and to her own instincts. The more I write Clare Hart, the more I become like her. I thought she would modify a bit, soften at the edges, but no, she’s made me sharper. Which is a good thing, I suppose, the other option was for her to be blunter.

What books have you enjoyed reading recently?

I loved The Emigrants by Sebald. And I re-read Persuasion – so elegiac about love is Austen and so vicious about social climbers.

You write about the violent underbelly of Cape Town. Do you think your books could deter tourists?

 I hope not! I have carefully included some great restaurants so it would be a pity to miss them. My books are fiction, obviously. But most people are murdered in South Africa, as elsewhere by their own relatives. So my advice to tourists is travel with family members who want to keep you alive. I have no fear of Edinburgh or Oxford, despite the hundreds of corpses that crime writers have littered in the lovely streets of those cities.

What do you do to relax? South Africa is famous for its cuisine, are you a good cook?

I walk and I drink wine and I eat out to relax. And yes, you guessed, I am a good cook. I love making food for people and we are spoiled with the best ingredients in the Cape. I have three daughters who all love cooking. They have an array of suitors too, so we make huge feasts and all eat in the kitchen.

Is there any part of the writing experience that you enjoy the most?

I do like making things up – and sometimes that feeling of being swept along by a story just overwhelms one – it is better than falling in love – and often less likely to end in disaster or disappointment.

Why crime writing? What started you on that road?

I came back to live in South Africa in 2001. I wanted to write about how contemporary South Africa is, rather than how it was meant to be, or where it went wrong. There seems to me to be equal measures of kindness and cruelty – and crime fiction is a way of writing about both.

There is a visual quality to your writing –do you see it that way as you write?

I storyboard my books while I am writing – that gives one a clear sense of place and the relationships between people. South Africa is so striking visually – the quality of the light, the drama of mountains and sea and, further inland, of deserts, is impossible to ignore. I want people to see what I see, to understand how full of contrasts this place is.

You use real locations in your books. Do you find it easier to write about real places or the imagined?

I do make up some places – but there is something so specific about South African society – how people talk to each other, what we eat, what the streets look like. It’s been important for me to capture the texture of the place, its detail. That is where the devil is, as you know. The best of American and British crime fiction, and of course our Nordic cousins, gives you an accurate picture of the everyday in those locales.

What sort of research do you do?

I do like morgues. And I have learned to do bone autopsies – there are enough skeletonised remains in South Africa for one to learn very quickly. I work with the police as much as I can and I visit drug dealers and prostitutes. I try to avoid politicians – even a crime writer has to have standards.

Will you keep your plots ‘local’ or will you move to other location?

The book I a working on now is set near Cape Town, but I am thinking of sending Clare Hart abroad. I think she’d fancy New York but I also think she could do well elsewhere. I have added a c ouple of things to her repertoire so she is now well equipped to travel....watch this space.

Do you think that you will you write any ‘stand alone’ crime novels?

I am going to write a couple of standalones I think – perhaps not crime, perhaps some romance-gone-wrong. But for now Clare Hart is my main concern.

What does your family think of your writing success?

They have managed not to look too surprised. Which is very nice of them.

Are you writing another book? I do hope so. Could you tell us a bit about it?

Water Music is the new book. It is set in Hout Bay, a beautiful part of Cape Town. I am interested in power and what happens to people when they give in to a desire for absolute control over others. I am finding it very chilling to write, obsessions are frightening when they run their course; a taut psychological thriller this one. It is taking me to the darker recesses of the human soul.

Books by Margie Orford

Blood Rose

Blood Rose a breathtaking, atmospheric thriller and a stunning return for investigator Dr Clare Hart. The gruesome murder of a homeless teenage boy suggests a methodical serial killer is at work in Walvis Bay, a depressed port, isolated in the vast sweep of the Namib Desert. It is a corrupt, claustrophobic place with a shifting population of people who came here only because they had to and where people know everything - and nothing - about each other.

As part of a cross-border policing initiative, Dr Clare Hart is sent to profile the possible killer. She works with Captain Tamar Damases, an astute local detective, who heads up the coastal town's Sexual Violence and Murder Unit. Clare is glad to be distracted from the implosion of what was till a few days ago a blossoming love affair with Captain Riedwaan Faizal, who turns out to be more married than she thought.... As the two women trace older crimes that may be related to the recent killings, nothing is as it seemed at first. Riedwaan comes to join Clare, to help with the investigation and to try to salvage their relationship, she realises that the harbour holds more than just rusting Russian fishing trawlers, and that a deadly cargo is ready to sail. It's not just their relationship that is in danger, their very lives - and the lives of others - are at stake....

Published by Atlantic Books. 

Daddy's Girl

Friday evening on a deserted street below Table Mountain a six-year-old ballerina waits alone for her mother to fetch her…

Captain Riedwaan Faizal is a member of Cape Town’s elite Gang Unit. Tough and streetwise, he is used to being a target. But when the danger of his anti-gang war envelops his only daughter and he becomes the prime suspect in her abduction, there is little he can do.

He turns to Dr Clare Hart, investigative journalist turned profiler. She is sceptical of Faizal, but she knows only too well what happens when little girls are abducted. Against her better judgement, she agrees to help look for Yasmin.

Their desperate search for the missing child, whose chances of survival diminish with each hour, unravels a web of deception and danger that puts all their lives at terrible risk.

Published by Atlantic Books. 

Like Clockwork

Like Clockwork when a beautiful young woman is found murdered on Cape Town's Seapoint promenade, journalist and part-time police profiler, Dr Clare Hart is drawn into the web of a brutal serial killer. As more bodies are discovered, Clare is forced to re-visit the brutal rape of her twin sister and the gang ties that bind Cape Town’s dark crime rings. Is her investigation into human trafficking linked to the murders or is the killer just playing a sick game with her?

Like Clockwork is a dark and compelling crime story that exposes porn and prostitution in the Mother City.

 Published by Atlantic Books.

Gallows Hill

Gallows Hill, the new Clare Hart thriller, released in South Africa in October 2011.

The woman lay curled up inside the small box. She had been jammed into it. Her head must have pressed up against the top, her feet against the bottom. Her belly would have pressed painfully against her lungs, her thighs, if she had been alive to feel it.

A dog scavenging in an illegal building site digs up a bone, a human bone. She drags it back to where her mistress lies dead in an abandoned shed, but there are hundreds more skeletons that have lain undisturbed for centuries beneath Gallows Hill, where Cape Town’s notorious gibbets once stood.

Investigative profiler Dr Clare Hart is called in by Captain Riedwa an Faizal of the SAPS Gang Unit and soon discovers that a deadly, more recent secret lies hidden among these long-buried bones. Who was the woman in the green silk dress? Who wanted her dead? Who buried her body among these ancient graves?

As Clare Hart gets closer to revealing the truth about Gallows Hill,  she becomes entangled with a fascinating but vulnerable young woman, and is drawn into a world of art, desire and destructive jealousy. Against the backdrop of corporate corruption and political tensions, Clare and Riedwaan’s complex relationship remains as tense as ever – and their lives are at risk: the keepers of the secret of the woman in the silk dress will stop at nothing to keep the truth buried.

Photo: Brooke Fasani

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Margie Orford

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