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Menings | Opinion > Onderhoude | Interviews > English

Mike Nicol in conversation with Janet van Eeden on his latest book, Monkey Business: The Murder of Anni Dewani: the facts, the fiction, the spin

Mike Nicol - 2011-10-25

Untitled Document

Title: Monkey Business: The Murder of Anni Dewani: the facts, the fiction, the spin
Author: Mike Nicol
Publisher: Umuzi
ISBN: 9781415201145
Price: R85.95

Click here to buy a copy from Kalahari.net.

Well done, Mike, for getting this book on to the shelves while the issue is still very topical. As the court case hasn’t come to South Africa yet, but is due to be heard here, this is a very clever move on your part. What prompted you to tap into the interest around the murder trial which has horrified South Africans and others, especially Britons?

Actually I was prompted by a suggestion from Frederik de Jager (the publisher at Umuzi) that I do something on the Anni Dewani murder. He first raised the issue in December last year and that got me thinking about it. At the time I couldn’t see a way to write up the murder in a way that would fit within the dictates of a fairly tight budget. However, while on holiday in Knysna, and after a lot of staring into the middle distance, I came up with the idea of running snippets out of the media as a way of piecing the narrative together. And Frederik and Umuzi liked the idea. I also have a fascination with narrative non-fiction and this seemed to be an interesting way to go about it. I don’t think it’s a form (the arrangement of discreet clippings from other sources) that is often used.

And how did you get the book on to the shelves so quickly?

We knew we had to get the book out before the trial (because that is going to produce a different sort of book), so it was simply a matter of setting an end date of the extradition hearing and working rapidly towards that.

How did you go about compiling this book? Did you rely largely on newspaper articles to form the body of it? Were you able to get any interviews with people close to the case?

Given the tight deadlines and the lack of budget, the book had to be written from secondary sources. But as I’d decided that this would be an interesting experiment in itself, it fitted into the style of how the book would be researched and what sort of book would result. In a sense it also became a book on how the media reported the murder and its extraordinary aftermath. So there would be no original material (except one or two comments from me and the afterword) but the rest was all pulled off the internet. That was another deliberate idea: I had to be able to construct this book while I sat at my laptop. In other words, because the story was already on the internet – but scattered across newspaper websites, blogs, Facebook pages, Twitter – what I was doing was gathering these “scattered chapters” and putting them in one place as a chronological narrative. I approached the project as any journalist would and simply tracked down interviews with the major people and run extracts from those interviews so that readers would get to understand the emotional trauma occasioned by the murder.

Photo: Kelly Walsh

After having read all the information available, what are you thoughts about Shrien Dewani’s innocence?

So yes, picking up from your previous question: I read everything I possibly could find. I soon realised that there were two opinions about Shrien Dewani. If you were South African you believed he had arranged the hit. If you lived in the UK, and you were liberal and middle class then you believed he was being set up by our cops who were looking for a scapegoat. My reading follows the South African one, but really, we do need the court case, as there are still so many holes.

You are a well-known crime writer. How does this real case compare with one of your fictional stories? Is it more horrifying or less?

It was a major departure for me. My crime fiction has been about crimes that usually involve the state and business. I haven’t gone for the individual deviancy in my fiction, whereas this killing was squarely in that realm. South African politics is not attached to this murder, so in that sense it was new territory for me. If anything it is probably more horrifying because we are talking about a purely selfish motivation behind the killing, whereas in my fiction there are conspiracies at work, groups of individuals motivated by greed.

However, the killing did open an insight into South Africa, so the book deals with our sense of affront that this could happen on our shores, but it also looks at the people involved. Thus, the mere mention of Judge Hlope (who tried the driver’s plea bargain case) brings up his involvement in the arms scandal and his shenanigans that were investigated by the Judicial Services Commission; and the driver’s sentence (18 years for conspiracy to murder) then puts the spotlight on the men who murdered Kebble and walked away scot free having confessed to the murder in court; the doggedness with which we pursued the extradition then reflected on our apparent inability to extradite men from Australia wanted for crimes that link to politicians; and our medical treatment of one of the hitmen who developed a brain tumour said quite a bit that was positive about the prison system. Here’s an irony in that instance: had he not been involved in the murder, the brain tumour would probably have killed him by now because it is unlikely that he would have received medical attention in time. 

Max Clifford, the publicist, is often hired by somewhat dodgy characters to put a positive spin on their stories. What are your thoughts on Shrien Dewani hiring Max Clifford to fight in his corner?

It was a bad move, I think. Bringing Clifford into the frame certainly went to convince many people that Shrien Dewani was guilty.

Did you have to battle to get the rights for this story? Are there many legalities regarding writing about an actual event which is unfolding in real time and is receiving so much media attention?

No, there weren’t any rights issues. We did get legal opinion on the form and that opinion said that as long as the extracts fell within the bounds of “fair usage” – in other words were not too long – and that everything was attributed to its source, there would be no permissions necessary. Hence the sourcing of every news piece. As for sub judice, that is not really an issue in this country, as it comes into conflict to an extent with our Constitution and freedom of speech provisions, and also, because we don’t have a jury system it is not often argued. And anyhow, everything in the book had already been published. As so many journalists insist on pointing out (and, yes, I am irked by this), the book contains nothing new. Why am I irked? Because by arguing the hard news critique, they miss the merit of narrative non-fiction and the way the book is constructed, and that reflects badly on our concept of the profession in this country. One of the things journalism does is construct stories from facts so that the chronology of the narrative can perhaps add to our understanding of the event. Unfortunately we don’t do much of this longer sort of journalism, so we have become fixated on the newness of news as being of primary importance and forgotten that we have other obligations as journalists.

Are you going to follow the rest of the trial and write a follow-up?

This comes down to the money question. If someone can afford to pay me to follow the trial and write a conventional book of the murder then, yes, I’d love to do that. But how can a publisher afford this? The margins in publishing are so small that they can’t afford to lash out a couple of hundred grand to bankroll a writer while a case is heard in court, let alone fly that reporter around the world to do the necessary interviews. With the publication of Monkey Business I came to realise something about the type of non-fiction books we publish: most of them are autobiographical in nature or, when they’re not, they’re often written by people who have jobs and the book is written in their spare time or during a sabbatical. In other words the book is subsidised by the writer out of their salary or their own pocket. Commissioning writers to write books costs money and our publishing industry is not flush enough to afford this just yet.
Are you able to get this book on to the UK shelves as soon as possible, as it is likely to be a great seller there too?

Interestingly, the manuscript was offered to UK publishers, who all turned it down on the basis that it wasn’t a first-person account and that third-person true crime had a very small market in the UK. So the book is available only in South Africa in both print and e-book format. One thing I should mention about the book is that it has a Facebook page (called Monkey Business) where I update the story from time to time, and inside the book are QR codes which allow readers with smartphones to link to websites where there is more information. For instance, there is a link to the YouTube clip of Shrien and Anni dancing at their wedding. It’s a horrifying clip when you think that in a another ten days she will be dead and he might have arranged it.