Jade de Jong: South Africa's answer to 'The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency'

South African author Jassy Mackenzie has created private investigator Jade de Jong – the grittier, South African version of Botswana's Precious Ramotswe.

'It's difficult writing about crime when the entire system you're writing about is one big crime,' says Jassy Mackenzie of writing crime fiction set durring apartheid in South Africa.

Considering its rampant crime and long history of racial strife, South Africa may sound like a place that's better for leaving than living.

But author Jassy Mackenzie has chosen to stay in the country she loves. The same goes for her fictional creation, a private eye named Jade de Jong who's sexy yet unafraid to hurt others (or worse) if necessary.

Mackenzie's three de Jong novels are a treat for lovers of exciting thrillers and gritty mysteries. De Jong is brittle but likeable, unlucky in love and quick – wicked quick – with a gun.

Mackenzie's plots are fast-moving and believable, full of vivid characters like South Africa itself. Her novels – including the newest, "The Fallen" – depict an overcrowded country full of rampant corruption and the most vicious forms of violence imaginable.

De Jong finds herself battling human traffickers, cutthroat developers and hired killers. She doesn't have clean hands herself, a fact that could come to haunt her on the job and at home. Still, she boasts a basic sense of integrity and a soul that's not yet withered by the world around her.

In an interview via Skype from South Africa, Mackenzie talked about the hidden gentle side of South Africa, the detectives who influenced her (including one Nancy Drew), and the reasons her books are a bigger hit in the US than in her own country.

Q: For people who haven't read your books, what can you tell us about your main character, private investigator Jade de Jong?

A: Although she'd been away for 10 years in the first book, she is quintessentially a South African. She has a deep love for South Africa in spite of all its failings and in spite of the crime; she loves the diversity and the people.

The crime in South Africa facilitates Jade in a lot of her work. It allows her more carte blanche than she'd have in a country that had fewer problems.

Q: South Africa is a major character itself in your books. To an outsider who's never been there, it comes across as an extremely violent place in which the rich live hidden behind security guards and electrified fences. How do you wrestle with your depiction of the country where you still live?

It's a case of being truthful and having an eye for detail.

I know that some readers initially see only the fact that it is a very violent country. You'd struggle to find anywhere else that has the same number of extremes because it's also a place that has an incredible heart to it.

There's an amazing generosity and wonderful spirit in the people who are here in South Africa, an unbelievable kindness and friendship that you can be shown by a complete stranger who may actually not even have a job.

It shows its faces and facets in so many ways, and yet you have this violent side. Then there's that other extreme where you're tucked away behind high electronic fences, and you're still quaking that armed gangs will break in.

Q: Which mystery and detective writers have influenced you?

A: When I was beginning to read detective fiction and thrillers, the characters who really stood out were invariably the female ones.

I was impressed by these role models of strong and able women, who were sometimes quite brutal and verging on psychopathic.

There were the Modesty Blaise books, written by Peter O'Donnell. [The British spy-thriller books first appeared in the 1960s and were inspired by a comic-book character.] The character Modesty Blaise is the most complex, amazing character. She intellectualizes all her decisions and has this incredible sense of humor. I remember reading these wide-eyed as a pre-teen.

As an adult, my whole love for thriller writing has been thanks to American thriller writers. Not necessarily those who write female leads, although I've subsequently discovered Tess Gerritsen. My earlier favorites were Lee Child and Jeffrey Deaver.

More than the characters, it was just the whole way that those books were paced, the incredible sense of place and the amazing way in which they managed to work in these unbelievable plot twists.

Q: One of your book mentions Nancy Drew, who's always been popular here in the United States. Did you read her books in Africa too?

She was hugely popular and a fantastic private investigator. I really enjoyed her and loved her individuality, the way that she took matters into her own hands.

Q: Your books are cinematic, full of vivid plot twists and movie-style violence. Will they be made into movies or TV shows some day?

A: I think every writer secretly lives in anticipation of that phone call. It's something that I would love. But like every other writer, I have to be patient.

Q: How do your books do there in South Africa?

They do better in the States than South Africa.

We have a lot of challenges here when it comes to local fiction.

In the apartheid days, fiction was very limited, and crime fiction was just about non-existent. It's hard to write about crime when the entire system you're writing about is one big crime.

Also, crime readers here can be distrustful of new authors, and it's hard to persuade a South African reader to read a South African writer when their books are sometimes not even displayed on the new book shelves.

Q: Your new Jade de Jong book is called "The Fallen." What happens in it?

Jade finds her romantic dreams horribly crushed on a trip to St. Lucia. She actually has an ulterior motive to go to St. Lucia, which is very close to a town where her mother died. She is on a quest to find out more about her mother, and she wants to see where her mother is buried. Of course, everything goes wrong, and there's a murder where they're staying.

Q: What about your next book?

At the moment, my next book, "Pale Horses," is in the editing process, and I'm excited about it. It takes the story to the new downtown of Johannesburg, and its reputation has the new high-rise capital of Africa and the richest square mile in Africa. It's about the wealth and the complications.

For more from women mystery writers who have invented fascinating female protagonists, check my recent interviews with authors Nevada Barr (the American creator of park ranger Anna Piegon) and Denise Mina (the Scottish creator of police detective Alex Morrow) here and here.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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