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Claire Keeton interviews Mike Nicol

17 April 2022 - 00:00

Claire Keeton chats to Mike Nicol about why he is ending his Fish Pescado series — and what’s next for the crime thriller writer

‘Hammerman: A Walking Shadow’ is his last book in the series featuring Fish Pescado and Vicki Kahn.
Mike Nicol ‘Hammerman: A Walking Shadow’ is his last book in the series featuring Fish Pescado and Vicki Kahn.
Image: Kelly Walsk

Hammerman: A Walking Shadow ★★★★
Mike Nicol

Acclaimed author Mike Nicol has been conjuring up crime fiction since 2008 and the final book in his latest hit series — featuring the surfing PI, Fish Pescado, and his smart partner Vicki Kahn, whose mysteries even he can’t crack — is now available in bookstores. 

Hammerman: A Walking Shadow marks the end of an era and leap into a new one for Nicol. 

“The transition to crime fiction in South Africa started in the new century,” says Nicol, of a genre that has taken off here and worldwide. “I started with a security guard, Mace Bishop, and I was trying to do a novelistic history from ’94 to about 2012. I wanted to put my finger on the pulse of the times. The Fish and Vicki series covers from about 2012 to 2019.”

In person Nicol comes across as laconic yet engaging, much as Fish does on the page. Like his protagonist, Nicol is a Capetonian who lives near Muizenberg where both would surf its languid waves. But the youthful-looking Nicol, now 70, has been forced by skin cancer to stop chasing the swell and instead walks shady mountain trails to unwind.

Cape Town is the backdrop for Nicol’s fast-paced thrillers which reflect the sociopolitical undercurrents of SA, flagging everything from corruption and greed to homelessness. For example, in the Fish series he has a feisty ally in Janet, a homeless woman with whom he shares coffee or meals and from whom he gets neighbourhood intel.

“The characters in the series get so familiar, like old jerseys, and that is part of the problem. I did not want to get trapped,” says Nicol, on why he has walked away from the popular characters of Fish and Vicki, despite crime series being very marketable. Take Deon Meyer’s detective Benny Griessel series, also based in Cape Town, which is still going strong seven books later with support from millions of fans internationally.

I was a snob and had not even read any crime fiction. I had to start with Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes and work my way through to the present day

“Now I need to do the cop novel, the police procedural,” says Nicol, who wasn’t ready for this when he first immersed himself in crime writing. A journalist for The Star in the ’70s and Leadership magazine in the ’80s, he knew what a repressive force the police were under apartheid. “The cops were always an invading army.”

Before his switch to crime fiction Nicol has had eleven non-fiction books - including Nelson Mandela’s authorised biography, two history and three wildlife books and two volumes of poetry - and another five literary fiction titles published.

“I was a snob and had not even read any crime fiction. I had to start with Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes and work my way through to the present day,”  he says.

“Crime fiction has a more structured format and conventions to adhere to, and stylistically it is very different to my first four novels. I would write sentences eight pages long,” says Nicol, whose thriller style is the opposite. Sometimes these sentences are so short they rattle past like gunshots.

“They still sound like proper sentences. It is really important to get the rhythm and the voice right,” says Nicol. “I wrote two duds to get to Mace and it suddenly happened. At the end of the dud book, I found a genuine voice and the character found himself. I still remember that moment.”

A Walking Shadow by Mike Nicol.
Hammerman: A Walking Shadow by Mike Nicol.
Image: Supplied

A renowned writing instructor, Nicol has coached around 30 writers into completing more than 20 published books online. “The short courses are not the same intensity as the masterclass, which is in its 10th year,” he says, describing the work as wonderful.

Nicol’s own routine is to write from six to eight 'o clock every morning in his book-lined study, even in the dark, rainy winters while his green-fingered partner is asleep upstairs. He switches off the internet at bedtime and starts his writing day with no distractions.

“I am not a fast writer and try to do 250 words a day. Sometimes it takes an hour, sometimes many hours,” says Nicol, who expects to finish his debut cop novel by the end of this year. The character of Cape Town, with its gorgeous, split personality — which reminds Nicol of Berlin, Germany, where he did a fellowship soon after the Wall came down — will be back again.

“Cape Town is still an apartheid city in many respects,” says Nicol of the place that provides him with an ideal setting for his stories — with its natural beauty, urban infrastructure, and contrasts between the rich suburbs, gang-afflicted Cape Flats and neglected townships. He creates mobile characters “to try to get the whole city into each book and not just the beaches”.

But the gritty details of contemporary SA — and the world — may be losing their appeal for fiction readers.

Nicol says: “I got a call from a publisher who said it is becoming difficult to sell fiction that is too realistic. Now they are interested in historic fiction, from about the ’50s backwards. “Maybe it’s time to try this.”