In The Spotlight: Angela Makholwa’s Red Ink

Hello, All,

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


Filed under Angela Makholwa, Red Ink

22 responses to “In The Spotlight: Angela Makholwa’s Red Ink

  1. This book sound very interesting and different, and I like books that are different. But I don’t know that I can add it to my TBR piles right now.

    I am looking forward to all three of your upcoming spotlights.

    • Oh, I know all about TBR lists, Tracy… You’re right that this book is a different sort of read. If you ever do get to it, I hope you’ll enjoy it. And I’m looking forward to the next few Spotlight posts, too.

  2. This sounds great, Margot, and perfect to fill another slot on the Around the World challenge. I’m rather tired of the conventional hunt the serial killer novel, but this sounds like a very original take on the subject. Straight onto the wishlist (the TBR is currently full!) – could you please spotlight some rubbish books for the next few weeks? Thank you… 😉

    • 😆 Turnabout and all that, FictionFan! Actually this is an original take on the serial killer subject; you were quite right about that. And I do have to say, there’s a very vivid picture of life in today’s Johannesburg. It’ll certainly be a good choice for your Around the World challenge when/if you get to it. If you do read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  3. The South African setting alone is a real bonus for me, one I’ve not seen included in much crime fiction – definitely looking this up, thanks Margot 🙂

  4. This does sound different, even for me, who is getting tired of the serial killer trope. And the South African setting is always special to me – love that country, in spite of all its troubles past and present!

    • I do, too, Marina Sofia! It’s a very special place. This novel is definitely a different sort of take on the serial killer trope. IF you read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  5. Sounds like an intriguing story and a bit different twist on the serial killer theme. Having South Africa as the setting would be another bonus for me as it’s a great way to learn more about the area. Thanks for sharing, Margot.

    • I thought the setting was done very, very well, Mason. And I agree: reading fiction is a good way to learn more about what life is like in different places. I hope you’ll enjoy this if you do decide to read it.

  6. Col

    Probably a pass from me, sounds interesting but too much on the plate already I’m afraid!

  7. You’ve really turned to global crime novels in the last several months, Margot. How do you find the books you read? Also, I was wondering if race played a role in this novel, as South Africa still has a lot of issues with the consequences of colonialism. Did the main character remind you at all of Clarice Starling? She was the first character I thought of when you introduced her!

    • It’s funny that you’d mention race, GtL. As you say, colonialism and apartheid have left deep scars in South Africa. But race really doesn’t figure into this story. The focus is more on the characters and their personalities. You ask an interesting question about the main character, too. Lucy didn’t remind me very much of Clarice Starling, to be honest. Yes, there are elements of the two plots that are a bit similar. But it’s a different sort of character, different reactions, and so on. At least that’s how I saw it.

  8. It sounds intriguing, Margot. Maybe when I have made more of a dent in my TBR pile.

  9. This doe sound good, but – like Tracy – I can resist because I am looking forward to your next two spotlights: Two favourites of mine, and I may be forced to re-read them!

    • Oh, I hope you’ll enjoy them, Moira! As you know, you’re partly responsible for my interest in Falling Angel… Truthfully, I do love it when friends I trust recommend great books.

  10. Wow. Red Ink sounds right up my alley. While reading I was reminded of a certain author who spent over a year (or years, can’t remember which) interviewing BTK, Dennis Rader. When her book released some viewed her interactions with the serial killer as more affectionate, I guess you could say, than clinical. Truthfully, even I admit she did sound like she generally enjoyed his company. They spoke on the phone almost nightly during that time. My point is, I see similarities in your post with the relationship between Lucy and Napoleon, even though you’ve made it clear there were no feelings on her part. It’s an interesting dynamic, and one I’d love to explore. Adding it to the TBR. Thanks, Margot!

    • You know, Sue, I was thinking of you as I was preparing this post. I really believe you might enjoy this one very much. And your description of that author’s conversations with Rader are, in their way, quite similar to the sort of relationship that Lucy develops with Napoleon. She doesn’t fall for him. But it’s obvious that she sees how he could be attractive to his victims. And that is, in its way, quite chilling.

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