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Scenes of Crime: Johannesburg

Location, location, location! There’s a reason why one word has such resonance with story-tellers and a good location can be as much a character in a crime novel as the Detective.

MD Villiers was born in Johannesburg and studied psychology at the University of Pretoria. Her passion for the country she grew up in provides her with a backdrop for her fiction in which she explores life in a country always on the brink of change. We asked her to tell us a bit about Johannesburg.

MD Villiers:

‘…there is no other city in the world that is so anxious to shake off the memories of its early origins.’

That’s how South African writer, Herman Charles Bosman, described Johannesburg and something of that remains true today, but my fascination with this city stems from more than just its origins, although I am intrigued by the history, the discovery of gold, the early days. Before I can start writing a novel I need to have a strong sense of place. It is as if the setting becomes the foundation on which the novel is build. Characters, conflict, and plot are rooted in place.

I have a personal history with Johannesburg. My mother was there as a social worker for many years, and her experiences opened my eyes to a city within a city. Berea, Jeppe, Hillbrow, neighbourhoods most South Africans knew about, but would not dare to visit. Jo’burg always had a bad reputation: dangerous, crime-ridden. Perfect for a crime novel. When it came to choosing a setting for City of Blood, I didn’t consider any other place. It had to be Jo’burg’s inner city to capture some of the vivid recollections of my past. A place of stories and childhood memories, and people: the coppersmith around the corner from Ellis Park, the gravedigger in Braamfontein Cemetery – one of my mum’s clients. He lived in a shack in a deserted area on the outskirts of the city, and was eventually arrested for several murders. Crime fiction territory again, and in my mind there was the association: shack, Braamfontein Cemetery. Thus, one of my characters finds himself hiding from gangsters in a shack here. I visited the cemetery as part of my research. It seemed that, despite the city’s continuous efforts to shed its past, Johannesburg’s history was very much alive. From the Miners’ Revolt to the years of Apartheid, all there in the inscriptions on gravestones and memorials. The security guard at the gate greeted us politely and assured us that it was safe. You can get out of your car. Reflecting, again, a changing city, and suggesting there was a time when getting out of your car inside Braamfontein Cemetery was considered risky.

Things are improving. Crime is down. Previous inner city no-go zones are being renovated by the council. New Town today is trendy, with bars, restaurants and museums. But when I look up at Ponte City or The Brixton Tower, I still feel a chill, and I recall the stories of gangsters and shoot-outs with the police. I think it’s much harder for a city like Johannesburg to shake off memories than Bosman suggested.

Dead Good thanks to MD Villiers for sharing her thoughts on Johannesburg as the setting for her new novel City of Blood.

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