FOR his first published work, author Monty Roodt decided on a setting close to home – a murder mystery set in Bathurst.
Roodt, a professor of sociology at Rhodes University, became a student again when he took a creative writing class at Rhodes under the expert tutelage of poet Rob Berold.
He stuck to the advice to “write about what you know”, and so his characters and circumstances are drawn from real life, which he admits might not endear him at his local watering hole.
His novel, Dead Man’s Land, is about a wealthy farmer, Richard Steele, who is murdered after planning together with an empowerment group from Bhisho to turn the Bathurst Commonage into a private game reserve.
There are an assortment of characters and groups with a grudge against Steele and who had motive to want him dead, including radical eco-warriors from Rhodes, brick makers who get their clay from the commonage, cattle owners who graze their cattle there, and people who were forcibly removed from one of Steele’s farms.
I always thought that the discipline of sociology would be useful in solving crimes, to know the history that gives rise to a particular crime
The hero of the piece is amateur sleuth Bernie Bernard, a sociologist academic who becomes embroiled in the aftermath.
“It’s not me, but it’s based on someone like me,” Roodt said.
“I always thought that the discipline of sociology would be useful in solving crimes, to know the history that gives rise to a particular crime. Most crimes call on psychology. But it’s not always about the mental issues of the individual, but about class and race,” he said.
“My crime novel is that ordinary people commit crimes – driven to crime through social circumstances. They’re not innately evil. There are very specific circumstances that made them kill.”
Putting himself in the shoes of his creation Bernie Bernard, Roodt said: “Using sociological information I would perhaps get more out of people than a policeman might because of understanding the history of relationships.”
Originally from KwaZulu-Natal, Roodt has called Bathurst home since 1991, after relocating there from Grahamstown.
“If you live in Grahamstown too long then everybody gets to know your business,” he said with a chuckle.
He likes the rural simplicity of his Bathurst smallholding, where he grows organic vegetables in a tunnel, and makes his own cheese and yoghurt.
He is married to Sarah Sephton, an advocate who works for the Legal Resources Centre in Grahamstown, and they have a 15-year-old son, Daniel.
As much as he likes Bathurst, he considers it “untransformed”, and stuck in 1994.
“There’s still a township where black people live and the town where mostly white people live,” he said, but alluded to a Bathurst street which was once known for being home to a number of white men who had married black women.
“The commonage in Bathurst has been a source of contention between the township people who graze cattle there and the herbalists who collect herbs there and don’t like the cattle being there.”
He is also currently working on his second novel in the Bathurst Chronicles series, this time about perlemoen and rhino poaching
Although Dead Man’s Land Is Roodt’s first published novel, he had written an earlier book set in South America, about a South African who is kidnapped by the Shining Path guerrilla group.
He is also currently working on his second novel in the Bathurst Chronicles series, also featuring Bernie Bernard, and this time about perlemoen and rhino poaching.
A reader of the works of John le Carre, Ian McEwan and Ian Rankin, Roodt said he had always been interested in crime novels and murder mysteries.
“Underpinning what I’m trying to do is that art should entertain as well as inform. It’s important for literature to examine and illuminate social problems and conflicts in society. But at the same time you don’t want to bore people.”
Dead Man’s Land is self-published by Roodt’s own Monkeytown Publishers. It is available from Amazon on Kindle and in hard copy. Van Schaik is also distributing the book in hard copy.
A book launch will take place at the Bean and Olive in Port Alfred this evening (December 13), at 4.30pm for 5pm.