The weather, like sports and movie stars, is always news. Everyone wants to know whether tomorrow will be hot or cold, even though there’s nothing they can do about it. Some of the worst days in history have been those when the weather headlined the news. Days and names no one will ever forget.
The Indian Ocean tsunami of December 26, 2004. Hurricane Katrina.
Japan’s 2011 tsunami. They made the front pages every time.
When the temperature in Oudtshoorn rises to 116 degrees Fahrenheit and six people and 130 ostriches die of heat exhaustion, it’s news. When it snows where it hasn’t snowed for a hundred years, it makes the papers. The same when it hails. When the wind blows. When it doesn’t rain. When it rains. And rains. And rains.
When the first villages were flooded days ago, the story was hidden on page six in the local papers, eclipsed by stories of a minister’s unruly illegitimate child. When the flood was on its way and it seemed as if Dar es Salaam was going to be swept out to sea, the story moved from page six to the front page.
The day before yesterday, when three British tourists and a journalist sent word to London by email that they were stranded in Zanzibar, the country’s tourist island paradise, it made headlines in four overseas newspapers and on eleven websites. Not even Lion Mining has managed that.
And then it happened. The thing that changed everything. The thing that made everything worse. Chaos.
The flood reached Oyster Bay, the beach resort of the Dar es Salaam elite. The three-story vacation home of IT billionaire William K. Jones III was swept into the sea, along with three other houses. Within thirty-six hours a CNN correspondent was reporting from the scene. After all, Billy Jones was an American citizen—and not just any American citizen. He was the man who discovered how to make a computer work at six times the normal speed. Moreover, he was an eligible bachelor with a bad-boy reputation and a long line of A-list women in his wake.
A day later his body washed up on the beach. It topped the news cycle everywhere.
The rain fell unremittingly, as one by one newspeople began to arrive at the waterlogged airport. All the newspapers and TV stations without correspondents in Tanzania were sending in their staff. The town was suddenly teeming with journalists, camerapeople, and photographers with hungry eyes.
But even before the first plane ungracefully skidded to a halt on the wet tarmac, Ranna and I were there. We were the ones to discover the body, after all.
We’re collecting seashells, walking slowly, our jeans rolled up, like children or old women during long, rainy June vacations on the West Coast. As if it really matters. As if it’s a competition. Ignoring the bad weather, we sift through the wet sand in search of the perfect shell. The one that has managed to survive the churning waves.
Earlier this morning, out of pure boredom, we had decided to come to the beach. Ranna closed her book and said you can only read and watch TV for so long.
It’s Sunday, and we’re the only people on the wide, sandy expanse. The beach is empty, and the thatched huts where the sunseekers can usually be found are deserted. The fishermen’s dhows lie tied up, the never-ending rain too much for even the most fearless among them. The sea is dark, unlike its usual bright-blue color, the normally calm water turbulent.
Ranna is forging ahead in the drizzle like an explorer, a dim figure in the gray morning light, hell-bent on success.
“Got it!” she calls. She turns, looms suddenly in front of me, her left fist clenched. “Close your eyes.”
I do as I’m told. She places something in the palm of my hand. It’s cold against my skin. It smells of the sea, of a woman.
I open my eyes and look at the white shell with the little face carved on it. “Looks good.” I turn it over. There’s a chip on the underside, but I don’t point it out to her.
“Hey! You were supposed to keep your eyes closed.” She smiles. A proud, pleased smile, the black curls windswept around her face.
As the rain begins to come down harder, I put the shell in my pocket and pull my jacket more tightly around my body. But Ranna opens her arms wide to embrace the rain and starts to run, faster and faster, as if we’re at the end of the earth and she’s about to jump off the edge.
She’s flying. She takes off, leaning into the wind, and I watch her body strain against the drenched T-shirt.
Then, just past the rocks, I see her recoil. Like a question mark and an exclamation mark combined. As if she can’t believe her eyes. Ranna, who has seen everything.
“What is it?” I hurry toward her, jumping over rocks until I’m standing next to her, breathless.
I draw in a sharp breath. “What the hell?” She doesn’t say a word.She’s watching the broken, pale body at her feet with a strange expression on her face.
I look from the dead man to Ranna. She’s watching the broken, pale body at her feet with a strange expression on her face. After a while I identify the emotion: she wishes she had her camera with her. But, because she didn’t want to cart it along in the rain, it’s in the Land Cruiser, which is parked a good half mile away.
Later I would understand that she wasn’t looking for her camera after all, but a back door. A way out.
The waves push the man to shore, until he’s lapping against our feet with the tide, a tuft of brown hair showing on the back of his head. On his neck is a faded tattoo. Something Celtic. I lean forward to get a better view. Three interlaced circles signifying eternity.
I close my mouth, but it’s too late. The stench has already settled at the back of my throat. It slides down to the pit of my stomach, and I take an involuntary step back. I draw a deep breath before moving forward again. When I kneel beside the body, my knees sink into the soft sand. Ranna stands rooted to the spot.
“Help me,” I say.
“Why? There’s nothing to see. He’s dead.” She looks at me as if I’m stupid. “Half of him is . . . missing.”
I ignore her while I struggle with the man’s bulky figure. I don’t say it, but I’m trying to turn him around to see who he is. Perhaps we know him. He’s lily-white, so he’s probably not from Tanzania.
I grab hold of his black shirt, dig my heels into the wet sand, and struggle to my feet. At last I’m looking at the remains of his face. I don’t recognize him. I place my fingers at his throat. His skin is an icy wet rag, moving under my fingers as if it’s no longer a part of him. His hair is slimy and sparse. Ranna was right: The sea hasn’t spared him, especially not his face. Neither have the fish.
I feel along the length of his body. There’s no jewelry or wallet to make it easier to identify him, though the tattoo may help.
Next to me Ranna begins to move away carefully. The sand sucks at her boots, as if it wants to keep her here. There’s an expression almost like grief on her face.
My eyes go from her to the man. “Do you know him?” She nods slowly, her face blank. “I don’t know. Maybe. It’s hard to say. I think I photographed him once for Time.”
“Time?” That means he’s a well-known figure.
I look at the man again. Maybe . . . could it be? Impossible. I turn back to her. “Are you okay?”
“Yes.” Suddenly she sounds afraid. Not the emotion I expected. “Are you sure?”
She looks away from the body, at the sea, at me. Then she turns and walks briskly away.
“Stay there. I’m going to fetch my camera!” she calls over her shoulder just before she disappears around the rocks.
Below is a brief interview with Irma Venter.
Why do you think Hard Rain will appeal to English language readers? What feedback have you heard from Afrikaans readers?
I believe that thrillers often work better in translation than many other genres as their central theme is the riddle. The whodunnit and whydunnit. Solving that riddle as a reader before the writer provides the answer – that eternal cat and mouse game between reader and writer – is a universal challenge and joy. I also imagine that crime enthusiasts appreciate the opportunities offered to the genre by a new setting, an unknown culture and the quirks of a fresh investigative team, while the central tenet remains the same – catching the killer.
From the feedback I have received, Afrikaans readers enjoyed the mix of love and murder in Hard Rain, which is somewhat unusual for a thriller. Readers have also told me that they loved the characters. Some readers were quite upset about Hard Rain’s ending. The good news is that there is a sequel, with Shrapnel delivering the next chapter in the lives of Alex and Ranna.
The continent of Africa is grossly under translated. What part of African culture and experience do you hope readers will take away from your novel?
I hope Hard Rain offers a glimpse into a vibrant, resilient Africa that brims with life, joy, ingenuity and opportunity.
However, I also hope readers will see that we, as human beings, are all the same. That people in Africa have exactly the same fears and dreams as people living anywhere else in the world. We aspire to be happy and safe, to find love, to succeed, just like everyone in Europe, Asia or North America. There is a term in South Africa called Ubuntu (from the isiZulu saying: Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu). It basically means: I am because you are, and this is true for every part of the world. One life touches so many others, is intertwined with so many others.
That said, Africa seemingly remains locked in a struggle to take its rightful place in the world, including as a part of the literary stage. There are many wonderful stories on the continent and they deserve to be told to a much wider audience. They also deserve to be told, not only by writers in diaspora, but also, increasingly, by writers residing in their own countries. And they definitely need to be told by more black (from a thriller perspective) and female African voices. Hopefully this will happen as the continent increasingly settles into democracy, as stories that are still locked down by the fear of censorship are freed, and as economic growth accelerates, thereby allowing increased spending on books.
Fully developing a local industry of any kind requires a degree of local consumption. I believe we have to create and consume our own stories, including genre fiction, on a larger scale before the world will really sit up and notice.
In that vein, are there other exciting contemporary African thriller and crime writers in translation you might recommend?
There are so many great thriller writers on the continent! Writers I could recommend include Kwei Quarty (Ghana), Oyinkan Braithwaite (Nigeria) HJ Golakai (originally from Liberia), Angela Makholwa (South Africa), Michael Stanley (the writing duo’s Inspector Kubu books are set in Botswana); and then also Karin Brynard and Deon Meyer, both from South Africa.
In the spirit of sharing and celebrating world literature as we launch Amazon Crossing World Book Day today, is there a particular region (aside from South Africa!) that you are eager to read and explore?
I have always enjoyed reading crime novels from around the world, and have recently started to explore Japanese writing, with Keigo Higashino my current firm favourite. What elegant, flawless plotting. And the peek he offers into Japanese culture is simply fascinating. Chatting here with you, however, I’m suddenly curious why I know so little about North African thriller writers.