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Our sunshine noir author for November is … Martin Steyn

A new month calls for a new local thriller author sending shivers down reader’s across the continent’s spine…

Michael Sears, co-author of the perennially popular Detective Kubu-series recently conducted an interview with author Martin Steyn for The Big Thrill.

Here’s what the two sunshine noir aficionados chatted about…

Martin Steyn got into writing because of Stephen King’s The Dark Half, and then into writing crime fiction because he was fascinated by what motivated serial killers to hunt strangers for pleasure and how they did it. He began by reading books on the subject, while scanning the local paper for reports on a serial killer dumping the bodies of young boys in the dunes not far from where he lived.

Martin studied psychology and criminology at the University of South Africa. After that he studied serial killers and profiling in earnest, following it up with research into the investigation of violent crime in South Africa.

In 2014 Martin’s first crime novel set in Cape Town, Donker Spoor, was published in Afrikaans and the following year it was awarded an important prize for South African suspense fiction. Earlier this year the English version, Dark Traces, came out in South Africa, and it has just been released in the US.

Martin places a premium on realism, and it shows in the book. But his character study of his protagonist, Jan Magson, and the people caught up in the killer’s wake are riveting.

Authors are often asked where they get their ideas. You mentioned that the idea for the murderer in Dark Traces came from reading true crime. Would you tell us a bit more about that, and how you base your work on real cases?

I prefer reading true crime to crime fiction, although when it comes to writing, it’s the other way around – this might be a Gemini thing. So I read a lot of true crime, particularly about serial killers and profiling, and I came across an article about a serial killer who really piqued my interest. I don’t want to name him, since it could be a spoiler, but I got the book written about the case and the more I read about it, the more I just thought I had to use this for a story. So I took his personality and psychology as a base, built it up with research into sexual sadism, added some quirks like the hangings, and that became my killer. In terms of the story, there are a few elements from the actual case, but I used it mostly for character creation.

Probably due to my love of true crime, I’m very much into realistic crime fiction. When I started writing crime, I wanted to write about killers like the ones I read about, like Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Andrei Chikatilo, and Moses Sithole and the Station Strangler here in South Africa, rather than the fictional versions who often bear very little resemblance to reality. Hannibal Lecter is a wonderful character, but Jame Gumb (Buffalo Bill) is much closer to the real thing. I’m interested in the latter, so that is where I look for inspiration when it comes to building a character. Sometimes it’s an actual killer, as in Dark Traces, sometimes it’s created from the characteristics of a certain type of killer based on research. I’m quite fond of the work of the ex-FBI profilers like John Douglas, Robert Ressler, and Roy Hazelwood, and rely on that a lot.

I do look to real cases for inspiration. My third novel (I write in Afrikaans first) deals with a kind of crime – a woman held captive indefinitely – rather than a specific case. And the one I’m working on now was inspired by an actual case in Cape Town, although the story, characters, and motivation are very different. So it’s not so much “base on” as exploit as a starting point or a character or a kind of crime. But after that I want the story and characters to have the freedom to develop in whichever way they go. I don’t want to be bound by the events of the actual case.

The serial killer is obviously central to the books. How far do you think a writer is able to understand the mind of a psychopath? How hard should we try?

I don’t know if you can ever completely understand that utter lack of empathy. But if you want to write about psychopaths in a convincing manner, then you have to put in the effort. Research is key, both books like Without Conscience by Robert Hare, who has spent almost his entire adult life studying psychopaths, and biographies about men like Ted Bundy. Scanning the entry in Wikipedia isn’t really going to get you there. You have to immerse yourself, because there is a huge difference between knowing the characteristics of psychopaths and understanding how they act and react (or often fail to react).

Continue reading here.

PS – Read J.H. Bográn’s recent feature interview with Michael Stanley here.

Dark Traces

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