Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. There’ve been a lot of novels about serial killings. And, of course, there are serial killers in real life, too. But there are fewer novels that explore what happens once the news has died down, and the killer is in prison. Let’s take a look at one such novel today, and turn the spotlight on Angela Makholwa’s Red Ink.
Lucy Khambule is one half of The Publicists, a Johannesburg publicity company which she owns with her friend, Patricia Moabelo. Lately, though, things have been quite strained between them. Lucy’s been bringing in a great deal of the business, and Patricia had promised her an adjusted contract that would reflect that. But it hasn’t happened. That, and a few other things, have driven Lucy to question whether she should leave The Publicists, and start on her own.
She’s of two minds about this when she gets an unexpected telephone call from Napoleon Dingiswayo, who’s in a maximum-security prison for a series of horrific murders. It seems that she’d written to him a few years earlier, when she was trying her hand at journalism and he was first incarcerated, asking to interview him. It’s not uncommon among journalists to want to get that sort of story, and Lucy remembers the letter. Now, Napoleon wants to meet her, and actually asks her to consider writing a book about him.
For Lucy, this is an opportunity she never thought might happen. She’s wanted to write a book for a long time, although she’s never pursued it. And she’s well aware that a book about Napoleon Dingiswayo will sell very well. She agrees to go to the prison and speak with him, and is soon planning how she’ll get background material for the book. She and Napoleon begin a series of meetings which she hopes will result in a bestseller.
From the very beginning, though, there’s trouble. For one thing, Napoleon isn’t at all what Lucy thought he might be. No, in case you’re wondering, she doesn’t fall in love with him. But she does see how he might have been attractive to his victims. And she’s disturbed by the way he seems to be falling in love with her. For another, soon after they begin working together, some horrible and violent things begin to happen. Napoleon himself is in a maximum-security prison. There’s no plausible way that he could be responsible for the attacks that occur. But if he’s not, then who is? And what might he know about them? It’s not long before she begins to believe that there’s more to Napoleon’s history than it seems.
In the meantime, Lucy finds herself getting closer and closer to this story. And she feels that dream of her own book becoming more and more possible. So, the question becomes: what is she willing to risk to get Napoleon’s story? And who is so determined that she won’t? Lucy gets her answers, but at a steep cost.
This is, as you can imagine, a story about a serial killer. Readers who don’t care much for such characters will want to know this. That said, though, Makholwa makes it clear that this isn’t a mindless, twisted character. As Lucy gets to know Napoleon, we learn about his background. And we learn that the killings are more complex than it seems on the surface.
The story is told from several points of view (all third person, past tense), including Lucy’s, Napoleon’s, and Lucy’s good friend Fundi, among others. Readers who prefer just one point of view will notice this. Since Lucy’s is one of the important points of view that Makholwa shares, we get to know her character.
She’s the loving single mother of four-year-old Diseko (And, in case you’re wondering, he comes to no harm). She’s divorced, but doesn’t wallow in that sadness. She is bright, driven, and capable. So is her friend Fundi. This isn’t a case of ‘helpless female encounters sadistic killer and is instantly at his mercy.’ Lucy is resourceful and brave. She’s not perfect, though, and she makes some painful mistakes. But she thinks for herself, and in her, we see an example of the modern South African woman.
The book’s setting and context are very South African, too. In speech patterns, daily life, and more, Makholwa places the reader in that country, mostly in Johannesburg. In fact, the major ad campaign Lucy works on in this novel is to re-introduce the city as a modern, cosmopolitan place. The idea is to attract businesses and tourists, and to present the city in a new, thriving light. This campaign is exactly the sort of account Lucy needs to start on her own, so she spends quite a bit of time on it. And readers go ‘behind the scenes’ just a little, to see how a publicity company works with its clients to launch a campaign.
Another element in the novel is the maximum-security prison in which Napoleon lives. On the one hand, it’s clean, well-lit, and so on. There are plenty of guards, and I can say without spoiling the story that no harm comes to Lucy in the prison. But it’s very obviously a high-security place in which some extremely dangerous criminals are held. In that sense, it’s an eerie place. And it’s easy to see how a person incarcerated there could change dramatically.
Red Ink is the story of a convicted killer who wants to open up about what he’s done, and of the writer who wants to share what he has to say. It’s also about the consequences of getting too close to a story that some people do not want published. It features a distinctive Johannesburg setting, and a protagonist who wants to make her mark on the city. But what’s your view? Have you read Red Ink? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 19 June/Tuesday, 20 June – Falling Angel – William Hjortsberg
Monday, 26 June/Tuesday, 27 June – Not a Creature Was Stirring – Jane Haddam
Monday, 3 July/Tuesday, 4 July – Inspector Imanishi Investigates – Seichō Matsumoto