Hardcore With A Heart: Joburg Thrillers Star A Spunky P.I. Jassy Mackenzie's crime novels, set in Johannesburg, star the not-always-law-abiding private investigator Jade de Jong. Mackenzie says that de Jong and "Joburg" are well-matched.

Hardcore With A Heart: Joburg Thrillers Star A Spunky P.I.

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South Africa's commercial capital, Johannesburg, is the setting for the last installment of our summer crime fiction series Crime in the City. Writer Jassy MacKenzie started life across the border in Zimbabwe, but moved to Johannesburg as a child, and she is now a passionate champion of that city. She describes Johannesburg as a mixture of Africa and the Wild West. Jassy MacKenzie drove NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton around the parts of Johannesburg - or Joburg, as she calls it - that inspire her books.

JASSY MACKENZIE: Joburg spoils the writer for choice. I love the energy of Johannesburg. People are open. People communicate. People are friendly in a brash, big-city way, which I love - the New York of South Africa.


OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Jassy MacKenzie waxes lyrical about Johannesburg, the backdrop for the female protagonist of her South African whodunits, the latest of which is "Pale Horses."

MACKENZIE: Most of my books feature the feisty heroine, Jade de Jong. Jade is a P.I. She's a private investigator. 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 the law quite enough.

QUIST-ARCTON: Armed with an unlicensed gun, in "Random Violence," the first of Jassy MacKenzie's four murder mystery series to date, P.I. Jade de Jong, daughter of a former police officer, kicks the proverbial, in her own inimitable way, taking on crime and criminals in very different parts of Johannesburg.

MACKENZIE: She is a born killer. 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.

QUIST-ARCTON: 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, in a secluded smallholding, on the fringes of Johannesburg, almost in the countryside. It's where the author, MacKenzie, herself lives. And all this in security-conscious South Africa, where violent crime rates remain high. Listen to part of the opening passage of the book.

MACKENZIE: (Reading) 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.

QUIST-ARCTON: Annette Botha's gate, which should open at the click of a remote control, is kaput.

MACKENZIE: (Reading) The wind was blowing hard, hissing and whistling through the long, dry grass that flanked her driveway. 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. Annette smiled in relief, leaning forward and scratching their coarse fur. Hey, boys. Just a minute, and I'll be inside.


MACKENZIE: We are driving down a road where I imagined that the opening scene from "Random Violence" could very easily have taken place, surrounded by farmland, a lot of empty fields, long grass, the occasional house in the distance. And I'm choosing this one because it has a lovely view to it. In fact, we're almost at the time of year where "Random Violence" was set, where the long, yellow-brown grass is dry and the night comes early and is dark. And all that together means that you're in for a very, very creepy environment.

QUIST-ARCTON: MacKenzie stops the car and tells me that she 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, and as we drive around, there's nothing obviously sinister in the air. 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. But don't be fooled by appearances, warns MacKenzie, about the seemingly bucolic outskirts of Johannesburg.

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 and there's an air of fear, just because it is so desolate and because, if crime does happen, you're far away from any help.

QUIST-ARCTON: And then we're back on the road, off to another of P.I. Jade de Jong's Johannesburg crime locations: Jade's Joburg, as Jassy MacKenzie, calls them.

MACKENZIE: Jade's Joburg: It has a nice sound to it. She's really a perfect girl for the big, bad city of Joburg. And once you get under Johannesburg's skin, it's the most incredible city. It's a very likeable place, and 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.

QUIST-ARCTON: So, what will spunky P.I. de Jong be up to during her next adventure? Throw into the mix her continuing unresolved romance with David Patel, the married detective she works alongside, who was a colleague of her late father in the police force.

MACKENZIE: A lot of people have said how much they enjoy Jade, because she's feisty and fearless, and because she strives so hard to get what she wants and she doesn't always reach it emotionally.

QUIST-ARCTON: But MacKenzie says she's putting the love interest on hold for a while.

MACKENZIE: Because, as I write the next book, I even don't honestly don't even know what is going to happen between them. I cannot say how or if that situation will work itself out. And 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. So I've kind of, you know, I've bought myself a bit of time in that regard. And I'll get back to it in the book after that.

QUIST-ARCTON: Meanwhile, in addition to her crime-solving, P.I. de Jong faces the immediate dilemma of how to get back her gun, which was confiscated by the police at a roadblock. The weapon is very much an extension of Jade as she develops as a character. But, says Jassy MacKenzie, she can't rely on it all the time. Jade must learn to live without a gun at times. Otherwise, life would be simply too easy. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News.


INSKEEP: Hey, to hear the rest of the Crime in the City series, go to npr.org.

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