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Micheal Sears goes down a rabbit hole with author Mike Nicol

15 June 2021 - 11:12 By Michael Sears
Mike Nicol's 'The Rabbit Hole' is a heady mix for a thriller.
Mike Nicol's 'The Rabbit Hole' is a heady mix for a thriller.
Image: Supplied

Published in The Big Thrill (01/06/2021)

Mike Nicol is a talented South African novelist and stylist, and every one of his thrillers is a treat. He’s also a writing educator and many of his masterclass students have had their work accepted for publication. If that weren’t enough, his blog WriteOnline offers interesting interviews, tips and ideas for writers.

Nicol’s latest book, The Rabbit Hole, tells the story of a family-controlled civil engineering business being lured into a corrupt contract for a massive infrastructure project in SA.

The company is clean, and its CEO Angela Amalfi, the daughter of its founder, wants it to stay that way. But she has two brothers. One is seriously psychotic, believing he’s a wolf on occasion and behaving like one. The other brother, Rej, is even worse. His father gave the top job to his sister, and he’s definitely not happy about that. Now he’s out to make serious money and has no difficulty eliminating anything or anyone in his way.

Rej finds many people interested in joining a gravy train, including a senior intelligence officer, a minister and a CIA agent who clearly has another agenda. The mysterious Voice seems to be on the side of the angels this time, but as always her priorities and methods remain obscure as she pulls the strings in the background.

If this sounds like a heady mix for a thriller, you’re spot on. And that’s only the half of it.

This is the fourth thriller featuring Fish Pescado and Vicki Kahn, but the novels are essentially independent. (Though if you haven’t read the others, you’ll want to go back to them as soon as you’ve finished this one.)

Private investigator Pescado becomes involved through Angela — he investigated the unsolved murder of her husband when the police got nowhere some years before, and through another client who is dating her. Vicki gets involved because Vicki always gets involved.

Nicol takes us deeper into his writing process and shares the inspiration for his latest thriller in this The Big Thrill interview:

Government corruption is the backdrop to many of your thrillers, but in The Rabbit Hole the focus is on the private sector. It takes two to tango, or in this case it’s more like the corps de ballet. Was that change of perspective important, or was it more the totally dysfunctional Amalfi family you wanted to explore?

It seems to me that when a government is corrupt, the contagion spreads throughout the society and the private sector is not immune. In fact, to continue to do business, they probably need to bend the rules from time to time. Of course this leads into grey areas. Although I’ve looked at the underhanded doings of the private sector in this novel, its unethical behaviour is because of government corruption, cronyism and greed. The Amalfi family became a way of mirroring this distorted world. By concentrating on tensions within the family, I was able to mirror what was going on in their business dealings.

I found Rej the most interesting Amalfi, and like all good psychopathic villains, early on he has a touch of appeal. How did you go about creating someone so evil and yet so convincing?

Rej wrote himself. Psychopaths are an interesting group: no empathy, no conscience, ease of lying, manipulative, completely self-obsessed, plotters who are forever way ahead of the rest of us. As I have close contact with a sociopath — the chaotic version of the narcissistic personality disorder — I have been able to observe these traits first-hand. For me the only way to characterise such people is to think of them as aliens. And so it was with Rej. The more the story developed, the more outrageous — evil is another word you could use — became his responses.

This was in contrast to his brother, Ferdi, who has a form of a rare illness called clinical lycanthropy. Psychiatrists reckon the condition tends to occur along with other major psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia, psychotic depression, or bipolar disorder. Ferdi, it seemed to me, called for empathy, whereas Rej belongs to a different order: an order given to chaos and destruction.

The novel crawls with undercover agents, some working for the SA state, some working for the CIA, some working for Rej, and some working for themselves, or more often than not some combination of the above. This isn’t George Smiley’s world. Has the simplistic “them” and “us” of the Cold War become dramatically more complicated in the 21st century, or do you think this is how it always operated?

The contemporary spy novel, certainly one not set in the traditional Western conflicts (the spillover from Islamic militancy, the conflict between Israel and Palestine, and renewed tensions with Russia), is a hybrid of crime and espionage. Clearly, in a country like SA, the government is as much a part of organised crime as are the poaching syndicates or the gangs controlled by drug lords. Often private enterprise finds itself responding to both sides to get business done. The result is a plethora of spies working for whomever.

It was probably always like this to a degree, except in the traditional spy novel the spies are often supposed to be working for (or against) their country. There is a sense of a national identity. They are trying to protect democracy, Western ideals of freedom and rights of association and speech, or they believe in communism as a social option. Whichever way, they have an ideal to fight for or protect.

The contemporary spy novel in SA doesn’t have that luxury of agents acting for a greater good. Our spy novels (not that there are many), it seems to me, are about dog-eat-dog situations. Many of the conventions that shape a Western espionage novel have to be abandoned as we try to find other ways of reflecting the reality we face.

A rabbit hole in the colloquial sense is defined as “a complexly bizarre or difficult state or situation conceived of as a hole into which one falls or descends”. This is a great title for the book. Was it the whole situation you had in mind or one particular character?

Throughout the Fish and Vicki series, up to his murder in Sleeper, there has been a spy handler — Henry Davidson — who quoted from Alice in Wonderland. It seemed a good idea to take that rabbit hole and develop it. Going down it is a matter of passing from one reality into another, and that other reality, as you pointed out, can be “complexly bizarre”. I hope it is.

Click here to continue reading the interview.