City of Blood by MD Villiers South African crime fiction has enjoyed a long-overdue boost of late, with Roger Smith and Lauren Beukes’ eye catching, but very different novels, throwing the spotlight on the country. The region has huge potential for crime writers, grinding poverty sitting next to pockets of carefully protected wealth, with corruption rife and violence commonplace. Out of this seething melting pot debut author MD Villiers, a former Johannesburg native, has crafted a dark, complex and often moving novel.
City of Blood opens with the seemingly motiveless stabbing of an elderly mango seller. The market crowd looks on unmoved, the Nigerian killer knows he doesn’t need to run, but nineteen year old orphan Siphiwe can’t bear to remain uninvolved. He goes to comfort the woman and that simple act of kindness kicks off a chain of events which puts him at the heart of a bitter and bloody turf war.
Gangster McCarthy Letswe has returned to Johannesburg after a forced exile and he wants his business back from the Nigerians who have muscled in during his absence. Their leader, the white suited chameleon Abuju, seems untouchable, surrounded by thugs, protected by corrupt police, but everyone has a weakness and Letswe is determined to find Abuju’s soft spot.
Siphiwe is an unwilling player in this web of intrigue; known to Letswe via a criminal cousin, being watched and threatened by the Nigerian who attacked the mango seller, and with the police pressurising him to speak up and help them catch the man. Siphiwe has his own demons too, guilt from the death of his brother when they were boys and a sense of responsibility towards the people at the shelter who took him in, but he’s smart, with instincts honed from living on the streets, and with so much at stake he will need every ounce of guile he has to survive.
City of Blood is part crime novel, part coming of age story, and MD Villiers blends the elements very successfully, making it seem inevitable, even natural, that a decent young man like Siphiwe would become entangled with the violent power struggles of gangsters. She writes with a clear, confident voice and the kind of forceful pacing which makes you whip through the pages. It is a striking debut from a writer who promises to become a major talent and I’m looking forward to what she produces next.