Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Plot and Story: Mike Nicol's Of Cops & Robbers and John Harvey's Darkness, Darkness

A few weeks ago I heard the novelist Percival Everett make a passing statement to the effect that story is not necessarily the same as plot, that plot represents the story, or, at any rate, possesses a metaphorical relationship to it.  I was thinking about Everett's statement while reading two recent novels: Mike Nicol's Of Cops & Robbers and John Harvey's Darkness, Darkness.  Because both  manage, through their plots, to make the stories embedded within them crystal clear.

I first came across Mike Nicol's writing in the early 1990s with his book A Good Looking Corpse- The World of DRUM- Jazz and Gangsters, Hope and Defiance in the Townships of South Africa. For me, it was an eye-opening book that took me into the world of underground black culture during the Apartheid era. Naturally, when I  heard that Nicol was writing crime novels (he also wrote Mandela: The Authorized Portrait) I knew I had to read them. Though I haven't yet got around to his earlier novels, Of Cops..., set mainly in Cape Town, has a story to tell, and as evocative of the region as it is politically incisive.

Illustrating that corruption, greed and violence know no colour or party line, Nicol's novels begins with a hilarious theft of rhino horns from a Cape Town museum, then quickly moves from there to cover-ups, Apartheid era death squads and a narrative that moves between the past and the present. Along the way one meets characters of various classes and colour, including protagonist, Fish Pescado, a blond, surfer-investigator, who comes across like a Don Winslow character by way of George Pelecanos, while Fish's formidable girlfriend, Vicky, is a lawyer with a gambling problem.  Together they find themselves up against the powerful, and those who do their bidding, who, for the most part, turn out to be as  stupidly comic as they are brutal. In fact, it seems that in the new South Africa, with its racial mix and recent past, it is, as the title suggests, difficult to distinguish the cops from the robbers. Meanwhile, traces of the past continue to linger.  

Of Cops... is a slow burner of a novel, whose investigation that doesn't really kick-in until some two-thirds of the way through. Prior to that it's all about back-story and scenes that establish the relationship between story and plot, none of which can be said to be irrelevant. While bits of argot  might be unfamiliar  to  American or British readers, the vernacular only adds to the richness of the novel. This deceptively complex and political novel shows that Nicol is right up there with new wave compatriots like Roger Smith and Deon Meyer, and, for outsiders, a book that will give you an entirely different slant on modern-day South Africa.

At one point in Nicol's novel, the reader's attention is directed towards a photograph of Mark Thatcher. It's a signifier of gaping proportions. After all, not that many years ago young Thatcher,  was convicted in South Africa  for an attempted coup in Equatorial Guinea. Sir Mark's view of Africa as a place to be exploited was perhaps something he inherited from his mother who despised Nelson Mandela almost as much as she hated the former National Union of Mineworkers' leader Arthur Scargill. Which brings us to Maggie's warped world and a novel by the always excellent John Harvey.

For me, Darkness, Darkness, to be published in May, ranks as one of John Harvey's best, mixing, as it does, the  personal and the political, and featuring the world-weary Harvey copper Charlie Resnick.  If this is, as advertised, Resnick's final appearance, at least, after some three decades traipsing across the mean streets of Nottingham,  he goes out in style. Darkness..., like Nicol's novel, switches between the near-present- Thatcher has recently keeled over at the Ritz- and the past, namely the 1980s miners' strike. A heartfelt portrait of the East Midlands then and now, Darkness... is evidence of not only how the past affects the present, but how the present demands a revision of the past.

Harvey has a good eye when it comes to portraying that part of the world, whether urban Nottingham or the pit villages, which are now bleak reminders of what they once were.  Like Nicol, Harvey presents the reader with an array of characters, from the picket and soup kitchens to police constabularies. But here's it's the women who hold the narrative together, much as they did the during the strike. Not only Jenny, a first-time activist married to non-striking Notts miner, whose body is found thirty years after the event, but Catherine, of Nigerian descent, in charge of the investigation. She is handed the job because the last thing the brass want is for the case to make waves. But once Catherine brings Resnick on board, waves are going to come regardless. After all, Resnick knows the players, and back in the day he was the officer responsible for gathering information on striking miners. Together he and Catherine interview the relevant parties, their investigation taking them back in time when, for a brief moment, there was a glimmer of hope that the pits might be saved and Thatcher toppled. It was also an event that altered gender relationships in mining communities. However, just as  women would play a large part in galvanising the strike, so they would eventually bear the brunt of the subsequent decimation of those communities. Times have changed for everyone,  but some things have remained the same. Thirty years later, Catherine a black policewoman in Nottingham might be in charge of an investigation- unheard in the 1980s- but she's no less  susceptible to male violence and domination.

For me, the portrayal in Darkness... of the circumstances, or the story surrounding the crime, is as interesting as the crime itself. This even though I was never able, as I usually am, to guess who might have murdered Jenny. Which I suppose is as it should be. On the other hand, if I had any criticism, it would be the novel's over-reliance on local accents and syntax, which, regardless of their accuracy, sometimes comes across as parody. I've always been of the Lawrence Block school, believing one should deploy regional accents and colloquialisms sparingly. But more importantly, in an age when history can so easily be erased, Darkness... is really about memory: the memory of  those involved in the strike, Resnick's memory of the woman he loved, Catherine's memory of the reasons she wanted to join the police. A few years ago I mentioned the strike to a woman in her mid-thirties. She looked at me and said,. "A miners' strike?  When was that?" Everett was right, plot is not the same as story. However, Darkness... and Of Cops... contain plots that make their stories crystal clear, and manage to accomplish that with no small amount of style.

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