Johannesburg is the most populous city in South Africa, and the setting for Jassy Mackenzie's Jade de Jong crime novels.
Johannesburg is the most populous city in South Africa, and the setting for Jassy Mackenzie's Jade de Jong crime novels. Evan Bench/Flickr
South Africa's commercial capital, Johannesburg, is a mixture of the old Wild West and a complex, modern African hub — at least, that's how crime novelist Jassy Mackenzie describes it. Mackenzie was born across the border, in Zimbabwe, but she moved to Johannesburg — Joburg for short — as a child, and she's a passionate champion of the city.
Jassy Mackenzie, shown here in the Sandton neighborhood of Johannesburg, was born in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) but moved to South Africa as a child.
Jassy Mackenzie, shown here in the Sandton neighborhood of Johannesburg, was born in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) but moved to South Africa as a child. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton/NPR
"I love the energy of Johannesburg," Mackenzie says. "People are open. People communicate. People are friendly in a brash, big-city way, which I love. ... [it's] the New York of South Africa!"
Mackenzie uses the dynamic city as the backdrop for her South African whodunits, the latest of which is Pale Horses. The novels star a female protagonist who's the daughter of a former police officer, but sometimes less than totally law-abiding herself.
"Most of my books feature the feisty heroine Jade de Jong. Jade is a P.I. — she's a private investigator," Mackenzie explains. "And I wanted to make her a renegade character. I wanted Jade to be the epitome, really, of Johannesburg, which is a place where a lot of people don't usually abide by the law quite enough."
Killer Genes And Rural Crime
In Random Violence, the first book in the series, de Jong (pronounced Yong) kicks ass and carries an unlicensed gun. In her own inimitable way, she takes on crime and criminals in very different parts of Johannesburg.
Diepsloot is a township north of Johannesburg, abutting the kind of smallholdings area where fictional detective Jade de Jong found her first case.
Diepsloot is a township north of Johannesburg, abutting the kind of smallholdings area where fictional detective Jade de Jong found her first case. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton/NPR
"She is a born killer," Mackenzie says. "She has killer genes and she often likes to dispense her own form of justice — even if that means that she gets rid of the bad guys right on her own, without involving the police at all."
Jade de Jong's first case is a woman found murdered in her car, after dark, outside the home she has just sold – a suspected hijacking, or something more. It happens in a secluded smallholding, on the fringes of Johannesburg — almost in the countryside — where Mackenzie herself lives. And it's set, of course, in security-conscious South Africa, where violent crime rates remain high.
The book opens with Annette Botha dealing with a dangerous problem — her gate, which should open automatically at the click of a remote control, is kaput:
Annette arrived home in the dark. Her car's tires crunched on the sand driveway and the brakes squeaked as she pulled to a hurried halt outside the tall metal gate. ... Stopping at night was risky. Getting out of the car was even more dangerous, but she had no choice. ...
The wind was blowing hard, hissing and whistling through the long grass that flanked her driveway. The growth swayed and parted and she peered at it suspiciously. For a moment it looked as if someone was crouched inside, trying to hide.
Her head jerked up as she saw movement ahead of her. Four large dogs rushed towards the gate, their shadows stretching out behind them in the beams of her car's headlights. The lead Alsatian snarled at his followers, defending his position as the others crowded too close. Leaping and wagging their tails, the dogs pushed their noses through the bars in welcome.
Annette smiled in relief, leaning forward and scratching their coarse fur. 'Hey, boys. Just a minute and I'll be inside.'
Spoiler alert: she won't.
In Jassy Mackenzie's novels, bucolic tranquility carries an undercurrent of menace. She points out that in the wide, empty fields outside of Johannesburg, a crime victim would be far from help.
In Jassy Mackenzie's novels, bucolic tranquility carries an undercurrent of menace. She points out that in the wide, empty fields outside of Johannesburg, a crime victim would be far from help. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton/NPR
On the outskirts of Johannesburg, Mackenzie drives down a road where she imagines that this opening scene might easily have taken place: it's a smallholdings area "surrounded by farmland, a lot of empty fields, long grass, the occasional house in the distance," she explains. "I'm choosing this one because it has a lovely view."
"We're almost at the time of year when Random Violence was set," she says. "The long yellow-brown grass is dry ... the night comes early and is dark. And all that together means that you're in for a very, very creepy environment."
Mackenzie herself survived a hijacking a few years ago. She says she used the traumatic experience therapeutically, folding it into the opening pages of her first published crime novel.
But it's daytime as she drives around, and there's nothing obviously sinister in the air. Birds chirp noisily and dramatic blue skies and a few fluffy white clouds dominate the horizon. Young horse riders are trotting in single file in the high grass beyond. Don't be fooled by the seemingly bucolic appearance, warns Mackenzie.
"In this rural setting, where everything is so quiet and tranquil, you would think that it would be peaceful, but actually there is an undercurrent of menace," she says. "There is an air of fear, just because it is so desolate and because, if crime does happen, you are far away from any help."
Billboards advertise a ballet gala in the affluent neighborhood of Sandton, Johannesburg — a recurring setting in Mackenzie's books.
Billboards advertise a ballet gala in the affluent neighborhood of Sandton, Johannesburg — a recurring setting in Mackenzie's books. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton/NPR
Not all of Jade de Jong's adventures take place in the pastoral outskirts of the city, and Mackenzie heads back towards a more urban environment to look at more of her novels' crime locations. She calls these parts of the city "Jade's Joburg," a nickname for Johannesburg, and says her heroine is well-matched with this city. "She's really a perfect girl for the big bad city of Joburg," Mackenzie says. "Once you get under Johannesburg's skin, it's the most incredible city ... it's a place that has a lot of heart."
"And I think, similarly, the same can be said for my heroine Jade. She is, on the surface, quite a hardcore woman. But scratch the surface and you find a person who's kind inside and a little bit more vulnerable than she would like to let you know."'
What will the spunky P.I. be up to during her next adventure? In addition to her crime-solving, de Jong's been dealing with a continuing unresolved romance with David Patel, the married detective she works alongside. Patel was a colleague of de Jong's late murdered father in the police force; in Random Violence, the two investigate a series of carjacking cases and de Jong discovers a pattern that may be linked to her policeman father's killing.
"A lot of people have said how much they enjoy Jade, because she's feisty and because she's fearless and because she strives so hard to get what she wants and she doesn't always reach it emotionally," Mackenzie says. But the author also says she's putting the love interest on hold for a while.
"As I write the next book, I honestly don't even know what is going to happen between them. I cannot say how or if that situation will work itself out," she says. "In the next book, it's not Jade's main focus, because she's actually taking a little bit of a break from her private life to involve herself in a short but very, very interesting investigation which leads her down a different path."
"I've bought myself a bit of time in that regard," McKenzie laughs.
Meanwhile, de Jong faces the immediate dilemma of how to get back her gun, which was confiscated by the police at a roadblock because of what you might call a paperwork problem. The weapon is very much an extension of de Jong as she develops as a character.
But, Mackenzie says, she can't rely on it all the time. De Jong must learn to live without a gun at times; otherwise, life would be simply too easy.