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?