Michael Connelly interviews Deon Meyer — The plots get dark
Last year this time we had the legendary Deon Meyer interviewing the illustrious Michael Connelly. We have pure magic again this year. Connelly chats with Meyer about what is happening to beloved detective Benny Griessel in The Dark Flood (Hodder & Stoughton, R315). Meanwhile, if you have not read Connelly’s latest, The Dark Hours (Orion, R330), it makes for superb holiday reading.
Connelly: The Dark Flood is your 17th book, and 13th to be translated into English, and is as thrilling a read (no pun intended) as your previous 12 titles. How do you ensure a riveting storyline, keeping things fresh for yourself and readers?
Meyer: Thank you, Michael. It’s a balancing act, methinks, between the familiarity readers have built up with characters like Benny Griessel and Vaughn Cupido (like meeting old friends again), and stories that are new and different to anything I’ve tried before.
I need to be really excited about the story, the intrigue, the crimes my detectives will be confronted with before I can start writing. My rule of thumb is: if I’m not thrilled by the story, readers won’t be either.
Of course, my country is constantly changing on every conceivable level; the law-enforcement environment is always in flux, and technology and socio-economic circumstances develop incessantly to offer fascinating new material.
Connelly: The Dark Flood is your eighth novel featuring Griessel: an undeniably flawed man, and exceptional detective. What exactly is it about him that continues to grab your imagination?
Meyer: Conflict, the old adage says, is the mother of suspense. And the more layers of conflict a character possesses, the more he offers the author. Benny is constantly battling his inner demons, his past, his alcoholism, his superiors, his ex-wife, his relationship with Alexa and his kids and, of course, the bad guys. With that constant chip on his shoulder, and a naïve and dogged desire to try and become a better man all the time, makes him a great character to write about.
I’ve also tried to keep it real for Benny. As we go through the various phases of our lives, we get to know ourselves a little better — our strengths and weaknesses, our hopes and desires. We make peace with some of it, we work on what we think we can change, and we try to adapt to all the changes around us. So, I try to imagine what this must be like for someone with the psychological makeup and personal history like Benny’s, working in the high stress environment of a detective. It’s a constant source of surprise and wonder.
Connelly: One can argue that Cape Town is as pivotal a character as it is for my work with LA and Bosch. As someone writing for an international audience, how do you go about creating an unfamiliar milieu without alienating the reader?
Meyer: If one makes the reader feel comfortable and at home in the familiar environment of the traditional crime novel and the universal humanity of the characters, I feel there is enough leeway to introduce a more exotic environment in the setting. Especially if it is one of the world’s most beautiful cities.
But, having said that, I have a sneaking suspicion that readers love being introduced to new and unfamiliar places; I certainly do when I read books set in interesting parts of the world.
And readers tend to sense a writer’s passion for a place. Your own love for and fascination with LA certainly shines through in your books. As a reader, I’m thinking: if he thinks the city is interesting, I’m willing to go along.
Connelly: 2016’s Fever could be described as an anomalous read in that it combines suspense with dystopian fiction reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Could you ever have predicted that — in the climate of Covid-19 — Fever could be read as a futuristic novel imagining a pandemic-stricken society the likes of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and Albert Camus’ The Plague?
Meyer: When I was doing research for Fever, five, six years ago, there were a lot of scientists all over the world warning their governments that a viral pandemic was coming. This was back when bird and swine flu made the headlines. Cover stories on the subject in TIME magazine and Newsweek actually inspired me to consider a virus as the reason for my fictitious apocalypse. But despite all the evidence, I never in my wildest dreams thought it would become a partial reality.
And now scientists are saying we can expect more pandemics in future. Scary stuff.
Connelly: Former ministerial bodyguard, the enigmatic Lemmer, makes an appearance in 2007’s Blood Safari and 2011’s Trackers. I’ve enjoyed bringing back Jack McEvoy and Micky Haller in my work. Have you considered reintroducing Lemmer to readers?
Meyer: You know how it is, characters become like family, and you think of them constantly — what they’re doing, how they are. So Lemmer is definitely not forgotten. In fact, in the novel I’m writing at the moment one of his former nemeses has made a comeback, although he won’t be in the book.
I’ll have to wait until I can find the right story for him. He has a lot of unfinished business.
Connelly: On the topic of characters who have made brief appearances: former cop-turned-private-detective Zatopek ‘Zet’ van Heerden solely features in 2000’s Dead at Daybreak. Can we expect him to make a comeback of sorts?
Meyer: He’s the one character I probably won’t bring back. I wrote Dead at Daybreak when serial killers were very much in vogue. Zet was an expert on the subject, but despite the popularity of several Netflix docuseries, I think it’s still out of fashion in crime fiction.
There’s also the feeling that Zet completed a pretty arduous personal journey through that book and to put him through something like that again feels a little unfair and artificial.
Connelly: Dead at Daybreak was televised as Orion in 2006, as was Trackers in 2019. Seeing Bosch hit TV screens has been an amazing experience. Did the casting of the main characters (Neil Sandilands as Zet and James Alexander as Lemmer) coincide with how you pictured them while writing?
Meyer: Back when we cast Neil Sandilands, he was famous for portraying a simple character in an extremely popular daytime soap — very much the antithesis of how I pictured Zatopek. It is testament to his incredible talent that he came to embody Zet so completely.
James, on the other hand, was probably the actor closest to how I saw Lemmer in my head. When I watched his audition, it was spooky.
Strangest of all, I think, is that my imagination still distinguishes between the faces of the characters I wrote, and the characters on screen. It’s like two distinct versions of the same people.
Connelly: To conclude: The English translation of your books retain South African words and phrases sans glossaries. From one author writing for an international audience to another — how does one successfully include foreign languages in a story without estranging the reader?
Meyer: This is such a tricky challenge. I love having Afrikaans, Zulu and Xhosa words and phrases now and again as it brings a unique and textured flavour to the books. And it reflects the diversity of my country. But as a reader I know how frustrating it can be if you don’t know what it means.
My initial instinct is always to try and use foreign phrases in such a way that the reader can easily infer the meaning from the context. And with services like Google Translate and the Apple equivalent widely available, I’m less worried than I used to be.