Michael Sears interviews thriller writer Mike Nicol

14 June 2022 - 14:00
By Michael Sears
Local thriller writer extraordinaire Mike Nicol.
Image: Kelly Walsk Local thriller writer extraordinaire Mike Nicol.

Published in the Big Thrill (01/06/2022)

Hammerman is the latest blockbuster from one of SA’s most talented thriller writers.

Mike Nicol is a novelist and stylist, and every one of his books is a treat. Hammerman is no exception.

One evening in February 1986, a man assassinated the Swedish prime minister Olaf Palme, shooting him outside a cinema. No-one has ever been convicted of the crime, and at the time there were rumours SA was involved in some way because of Palme’s outspoken opposition to apartheid and his pro-sanctions stance.

In Hammerman, Nicol has taken that idea and explored how the ripples from that event might spread to the present day.

Early in the book, we discover AJ, a colonel in the police service, has a double life that makes him an asset as well as a threat. When he is murdered execution-style, his distraught wife hires PI Fish Pescado to find out the real story. That takes him on a dangerous trail that leads to a farm in the Moordenaars (Murderers) Karoo desert and a man who might, or might not, have been behind the assassination.

Nicol chats to The Big Thrill about his latest Fish and Vicki thriller.

The premise of Hammerman is that the assassin of Olaf Palme was a South African working for Boss, the infamous apartheid-era Bureau of State Security. What drew you to the idea of using that in a Fish and Vicki thriller?

The thing about many crime novels, certainly the ones I most value, is that they are also political novels. They reveal a country’s history, politics, society. In an endnote in James Ellroy’s novel Perfidia, he writes about his fiction being a “novelistic history”. Which is what much crime fiction is all about.

With my Fish and Vicki series, I started with Of Cops & Robbers, where the story hung on apartheid hit squad raids into neighbouring territories and the mysterious killing of the National Party politician Dr Robert Smit and his wife Jean-Cora in 1977. No-one was ever found guilty of those murders.

Then in Agents of the State, I returned to the assassination of Dulcie September in Paris in 1987 (first referenced in Of Cops & Robbers). She ran a branch of the ANC in Paris, and it remains a moot point whether she was killed by an ANC hitman or someone commissioned by the French secret service.

The next two novels in the series, Sleeper and The Rabbit Hole, despite mentions of past crimes, are more focused on the current looting of the state by members of the ruling ANC.

With Hammerman, I wanted to again link the past to the present. I have long been fascinated by the mystery of the Palme assassination, and as it seems Boss agents were seriously thinking of killing him (they even had Hammer as the code name for the operation) I thought, why not bleed it all into the novel?

'Hammerman: A Walking Shadow' is Nicol's last book in the series featuring Fish Pescado and Vicki Kahn.
Image: Supplied 'Hammerman: A Walking Shadow' is Nicol's last book in the series featuring Fish Pescado and Vicki Kahn.

After she’s attacked at the end of The Rabbit Hole, Vicki is left in a coma, and no-one knows if she’ll recover. Fish carries on but is also damaged, even giving up surfing. He holds a conversation with her in his head. Sometimes it seems he extrapolates her natural reactions, but on occasion she seems to supply him with ideas and even information. Did you intend this “communication” to be more than Fish’s imaginings in response to loneliness and grief?

There were a number of things at work here. In a way Vicki, even though she’s not dead, plays the part of a ghost, like Hamlet’s father or Banquo in Macbeth or the teenager in the teen thriller The Invisible.

In cold, academic terms, she’s a literary device and comments on what is happening and does supply Fish with information and ideas. Of course, mostly, he is keeping her “alive” in his head.

I have come to believe there was another influence here. Three years ago, my stepdaughter died, and I soon realised I often had conversations with her in my head. And still do. We’d had a close relationship, and although, obviously, she wasn’t talking back, this was one way of dealing with the grief of being without her. At some level, I reckon this led to the “discussions” between Fish and the unconscious Vicki.

AJ is a complicated character. He was a hitman in Boss days and is persuaded to revert to that role in post-apartheid SA. Yet he’s a loyal friend, gentle husband and loving father. He’s also a courageous and successful colonel in the new police service. While everyone compartmentalises their lives to some extent, would such an extreme division— and behaviour — require an intrinsically unbalanced personality?

Over the past few years, I’ve experienced the behaviour of a sociopath and been quite close to the story of another sociopath who ensnared her partner for two years before he was able to break free. This experience and observation went into forming AJ’s character as sociopaths are adroit at presenting a face to meet the faces that they meet, to borrow from TS Eliot. Yes, we all compartmentalise our lives (some of us extremely successfully, when you consider the politicians and civil servants who are also thieves), but sociopaths are the experts: They can be charming; they can be deadly. So, yes, I saw AJ as being one of those fantasists from the Boss era who could be both killer and loving father, husband, brother.

Click here to continue reading their conversation.