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Down in the Valley: Mike Nicol Chats to Michele Rowe About Her Novel Hour of Darkness

By Mike Nicol for the Sunday Times

Hour of DarknessHour of Darkness
Michéle Rowe (Penguin)

What sort of person would be listening to “Changeling, particularly Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud, Agitprop by the Kalahari Surfers, and also Spoek Mathambo and Beast, Wagner piano pieces, Pond, Tame Impala, The Doors, and the Decembrists”?

You wouldn’t guess it was the elegant woman with the blondish hair pinned up and the casually-thrown burgundy scarf round her neck, at the table in the Food Barn deli in Noordhoek, stabbing a finger at her cellphone. But that just goes to show how wrong first impressions can be.

You see, that’s Michéle Rowe sitting there. Who? If you don’t know you are probably one of those dipheads who buys adult colouring-in books.

Michéle Rowe is a crime novelist. Actually a damn good crime novelist. She won a CWA debut dagger for her first novel. That’s the Crime Writers Association, which is UK based and has crime novelists dreaming of the fame it confers.

Here are a few things about Michéle that might or might not tell you something.

Her order is for cappuccino and a chocolate croissant. She is married to the Kalahari Surfer. She has two children who have left home. She has never been in rehab. If she could take cocaine every day she would but she does worry about what it might do to her. She has great grandparents who came from Mauritius and whose children crossed over to the white side during the time of the pencil test.

She’s been an egg-peeler, a waitress, a graphic designer, a scriptwriter “and a whole lot of things in between which I won’t talk about”.

She has moved house 48 times. You might think “gypsy” at this point. Or hippie. Or even troubled soul. She does wear wellies in the garden, however, which hardly speaks of a troubled soul.

Until 2000 she lived in Johannesburg before migrating to Cape Town. “A completely strange city. There is something going on beneath the surface which you can sense but you don’t know what it is or how to describe it. Cape Town is a crime.”

Got it in one. Cape Town is, after all, a city founded on slavery, a theme which rears its head in her books.

The first, What Hidden Lies, went scratching beneath the surface of the western side of the southern peninsula – from Noordhoek southwards. That was a nasty story of murder and drugs and bones that rose out of the past. It brought into the South African crime pantheon a slight but feisty cop named Persy (short for Persephone) Jonas.

She got into a fair amount of trouble in that book and she gets into a fair amount in the new one, Hour of Darkness, partly because she’s having it off with her boss. It doesn’t help that her boss’s wife is head of the police station.

This novel not only scratches but digs deep into the Constantia valley. There is much that comes to the surface.

“What I don’t understand,” – Michéle pauses to pay attention to her chocolate croissant – “is how do people live in Harare, Khayelitsha and work in Constantia? How do they cope with seeing that luxury? These rich homes?”

Her book has a kind of answer.

So does she, once she’s swallowed the piece of chocolate croissant.

“There’s not only the destruction of the valley beneath housing estates, there’s the cover up of its history. It’s a suburb of homeless people.”

And you get the impression that she might not only be talking about those sleeping in the vineyards and on the streets and under the shrubbery on the motorway junction. She might also be talking about those who have everything.

If Michéle’s crime novels are an attempt to imagine Cape Town where to next? It seems the people of Kommetjie, that surfing seaside suburb, might provide an insight. A few weeks ago she moved there. Into a house in Afrikaner Avenue – which featured prominently in her first novel – and she has since found a squashed leopard toad in her driveway.

Significance? Leopard toads are sacred to the folks of Noordhoek and Kommetjie. There are road signs warning motorists to avoid flattening them. A squashed leopard toad is an ill omen. It speaks of what hidden lies.

Follow @MikeNicol on Twitter

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