BOOK REVIEW: A gentle thriller about a gruesome killer
African crime genre author Scotty Elliott is not keen on up-close gore, and it's her characters that fascinate
Sibanda and the Black SparrowhawkCm ElliottJacana Media
Skinned, raped bodies flung into the bush from moving passenger trains are at the gruesome heart of what Zimbabwean author Scotty (CM) Elliott has decided, for now, to call her "African crime genre" books.
She’s searching for a catchier name for the breed that includes the Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith, her Detective Inspector Jabulani Sibanda series and other such books.
Elliott, based in Bulawayo, explains they are not Nordic Noir or police procedural — or thrillers in which a woman gets tied up in a basement waiting to be tortured.
"My books are set in less explicit and violent crime than the norm. They are in keeping with a move back to more gentle crime writing these days."
A pause before she adds, "although this one is gritty in some ways". But the violence takes place "off stage" because she’s not into up close and personal twisting of knives, blood and gore.
Elliott began writing in middle age during a spate of boredom after she and husband Alan had sold their safari company in Zimbabwe.
The spark for her latest book’s misogynistic, psychopathic serial killer came from the memoirs of Rhodesia’s first forensic scientist.
He described "a murderer who had gone on a spree and skinned all his bodies".
Detective Inspector Sibanda draws up a list of suspects who could possibly fantasise about hanging skins in a cupboard, "black and white skins, draped almost like ball gowns".
"But it’s his fantasy as they can’t find the skins," Elliott says.
She has explored the topic of psychopaths in preparation for her writing. "I’d hate anyone to see my internet search list."
Their central characteristic is a lack of empathy that renders them unable to relate to what they are doing in terms of distress or pain, "it’s just pleasure for them".
MRIs of the brain can now identify a psychopath, "but those who have been lovingly nurtured by a caring mother can, we are told, develop empathy", Elliott says.
Her plot keeps readers guessing right to the end, when the monster meets a truly satisfying fate.
Elliott’s skill as a writer lies in her ability to create and flesh out characters that are so lifelike, they thrum in your head for days after finishing her books.
Her hero, Sibanda, is tall, elegant, athletic and handsome. He knows the names and habits of most birds and animals. He’s also moody and can be sarcastic, but I’m so in love that her words fall on deaf ears. Sibanda has been to a police college in the UK, is exceedingly bright, seems to have a sixth sense and can read the bush as well as any expert animal tracker.
This unnerves his bombastic, dimwitted police commander at Gubu Police Station, who undercuts Sibanda at every turn, even holding press conferences about the serial killer. This infuriates the detective, who knows that’s what the psychopath thrives on.
The serial killer’s "signature" is the Black Sparrowhawk, a raptor adapted to urban environments. It plucks and decapitates its prey before eating it.
Two of Elliott’s main characters who have, like Sibanda, leapt from the page since her first book in the series, Sibanda and the Rainbird, are his foil Sergeant Ncube, who is comedic and fat, and the erratic and ancient Landrover Miss Daisy.
The digestively challenged Ncube, "written with Shakespeare’s Falstaff in mind", has three wives, is town-bred and terrified of the bush.
His gut rumbles at the most inappropriate of times and he is notorious for his propensity to break wind.
One of his three wives, Nomatter, makes mouthwatering dishes from the little available in poverty-stricken Matabeleland. When things get tough, Ncube’s digestive juices get flowing, and Sibanda is well aware that the only way to quieten things down is to suggest that his sergeant tucks in.
The stereotype that all black people grew up in and know about the bush is firmly squelched by Elliott – the familiar screech of a francolin sends Ncube leaping in terror to the safety of Miss Daisy, which has pink candy-striped seats and parts collected from scrapyards all over the country.
She is the clearly biased author’s favourite character. "She’s the one I know the best for I have ridden in her, kicked her tyres, pushed her when she’s stuck and yelled with frustration when she’s broken down," Elliott says.
Readers familiar with Miss Daisy will be alarmed to learn that she’s finally destined for the scrap heap in this book, although Elliott does not kill off characters with abandon like some crime writers — she knows that they have a firm of readers in southern Africa.
Skill as a writer lies in her ability to create characters that thrum in your head for days
Elliott has fleshed out her principals including the kind and sympathetic police constable Zanele Khumalo, who is lured from behind her desk by Sibanda to play an extremely dangerous role in helping to catch the killer.
The killer’s modus operandi is to swing into the compartments of moving trains transporting attractive women with red nails, and to torture, kill and skin his victims.
Elliott spent weeks in the Bulawayo Railway Museum working out how he did it. She also visited Gubu Police Station, "which is not quite like mine, to ask if they’d had any murders". The response was negative until someone remembered a son had recently killed his mother.
"But that’s my one and only visit to a police station and, unlike British crime writer Peter James in Brighton, I don’t go out with them on patrol. That’s why you can’t label my series a police procedural," she says.
Elliott was born in the UK, grew up in a pub that her parents owned in the UK Midlands and emigrated with them to Australia, where she completed an honours degree in French studies.
In her late twenties, in search of excitement, she set off for England via Zimbabwe’s Hwange Game Reserve.
There she met the country’s first professional game ranger, Alan Elliott, and married and settled into a peripatetic existence, raising their now thirty-something son.
Their little safari company, Touch the Wild, grew so big at one stage, it employed 300 people. Snakes slithered into their homes. Elephants visited them. Their vehicles, some closely resembling Miss Daisy, were rammed by rhinos.
If you’ve not yet dipped into the Sibanda series, you have an experience to kill for – as long as Sibanda is not around.