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Review of Charlotte Otter's Balthasar's Gift PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 27 May 2015 15:26

Review By Penny de Vries

Balthasar’s Gift is an extremely welcome newcomer to the South African crime fiction scene. It is refreshing to read crime fiction that is not a thinly veiled excuse to critique all that is wrong with the country, whether it be the police, the justice system or the government. It does explore the issues of our time but not in binary terms. Ambiguity and uncertainty give more credence to a narrative than do binary opposites. The characters too are real and familiar, yet uniquely themselves. The blurb describes it as hard-boiled, of which there is an element, but not too much, not so much that humanity is lost.

Maggie Cloete is a reporter on the crime beat working for a daily newspaper in Pietermaritzburg, Kwa-Zulu Natal. She is a wonderful character; feisty, tom-boyish and with a penchant for getting too involved in the story rather than keeping her distance and reporting on it as her editor, Zacharius Patel, would prefer. She is very contrary; once told not to do something, she feels compelled to disobey. She is a hard drinker, rides a motorbike and can be quite ascerbic and bitchy. She comes from a conservative Afrikaans background but is estranged from her parents and holds very different values. The other members of staff are well-drawn characters such as Aslan Chetty, her former trainee, “who had a habit of quoting Jane Austen” and the elderly Alicia, in charge of the Archives who wafts around in a ‘lavender mist’. Then there is Ed, the photographer, who “had a way with images, not with words” and Sally-Anne, the arts reporter who was talented at propping up the egos of any men who needed it. These thumbnail sketches add colour to the characters.

The other aspect of this novel that I relish is that it is set in Pietermaritzburg, a city I know fairly well. I also know and love Cape Town but there are so many novels set in Cape Town, it gets a little tedious. The writer describes the terrain, the type of vegetation, the bird-life (“a hadeda dressed in housewife brown”) and the townships accurately and vividly; even if one did not know Pietermaritzburg it would be interesting to get to know it through Maggie’s exploits.

In the year 2000, AIDS denialism in government means that the proper medical solutions are not being implemented. An AIDS activist is killed in what appears to be a “robbery gone wrong”. Patel, her editor, sends Maggie to report on the murder and she discovers that the victim is Balthasar Meiring, a man who had phoned her a week ago to enlist her help. He wanted her to cover a case in the High Court; a class action against a doctor who sold local families a fake cure for AIDS. At the newspaper’s daily conference, she discovers that Balthasar is the son of a local farmer, “who had received an incongruously light sentence over a decade ago for killing one of his workers”. Maggie and Ed drive out to the farm to interview the parents and discovers that it is an extremely dysfunctional family.

From there, things escalate; Patel tells Maggie to ignore this case but she cannot let it go. She attends the funeral that takes place at the private school Balthasar attended. There she is able to observe the dynamic between his previous schoolmates, one of whom, Dumisane Phiri, is politically connected and very anti-Maggie. The reasons for this emerge as do his less salubrious connections. She also attends the class action court case and begins to realise that there are many convoluted and corrupt connections in the AIDS arena. Gangsters try to scare her off but nothing will deter her in her quest to discover the truth. Maggie discovers that Balthasar had adopted AIDS orphans and the nanny of his youth, Nkosazana, had been helping him look after them. Now they are stranded in his home but with no source of income. Lindiwe, who had worked with Balthasar at HIV House, opens up to her and together they are able to delve deeper. Action, suspense, twists and surprises are all present, as one would expect from crime fiction. There are various possible suspects and the reader is never sure which characters are red herrings and which is the real perpetrator.

If you want to know the rest, you will have to buy the book. You will not regret it; crime fiction combined with astute commentary on contemporary life in South Africa underpinned by an empathetic and balanced sensitivity to the nuances. I look forward to Maggie’s next assignment.


This review is part of de Vries' 2015 Reading Challenge - SA Books Only.

Andrew Miller PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 27 May 2015 10:11

Andrew Miller (1974-)is a Joburg based poet and writer. He is the author of Dub Steps, winner of the 2015 Dinaane Debut Fiction Award (previously the EU Literary Award). He performs and lectures on various South African stages and contributes to magazines, on a freelance basis, across the spectrum.

Andrew graduated from the the University of Natal (Pietermaritzburg) in 1995 with a BA in English and Political Science. He has worked as a full time freelance writer since 1998, specialising in commercial ghost writing and the development of corporate narratives.

Together with his wife, Robyn Field, Andrew ran Unity Gallery in the city of Joburg between 2003 - 2013. Unity Gallery was a privately funded, socially orientated creative space that offered a wide range of career development services to emerging city fine artists, craft artists, poets, journalists and designers. Within this context, Andrew has worked with many young Joburg artists and creatives in the development of their careers, with a focus on critical thinking, narrative development and the effective use of Public Relations.

As a performance poet, Andrew has appeared on different stages, from the Joburg spoken word scene to the WITS Business School, the Daily Maverick Gatherings and various corporate events. His performances feature a mix of personal storytelling, political commentary and poetry.

Prior to winning the Dinaane Debut Fiction Award in 2015, Andrew published an anthology of poetry, Hinsta's Ghost (2007) and a collection of essays, Getting Up: Thoughts on Falling (2008). His poetry was described by the The Independent as “an important contribution to the national conscience, as well as to literature.”

Andrew is currently working on [Sic] - a novel about grammar, domestic servitude and social conflict.


Selected Work

Extract from Dub Steps (2014):


I am an old man on a hill, and my regrets are generic. To the extent that death can surprise, this has been it. It shouldn't be a shock, but there you go.

I regret, most of all, my shrivelled heart. So focused on the numbers. On the maths of my personal equation. Can a man change his heart? Are there ways to improve the spirit of who you are? Of why you choose? It would be nice to think so. But me, now, I am simply ambient. I must be. Into this air I shall shortly slip. The solvent is this running, jagged brain, all angles and contusions, breaks and falls. The surface shines. Teflon. I slip back, and back, into my stories, ideas of her. Whoever she is now, her, the love I refused. Me, angry little peanut.

I should have loved harder. Generic.

I refused to let go. Generic.

I think I will miss the birds, the weavers most of all, but all of them really (the worker birds, more than the exotic. The mynas and the barbets and the robins. The boys on the rush, building and moving, private and fast and swooping). Generic.

Blue sky. It starts to taste like something as you get really old. Something powerful. You open your sagging mouth and let the blue pour in. It's fresh and light and it bubbles like an advert. Generic.

I remember a time on the beach. Well, not really a memory. Just the brush stroke of us, down the shoreline. She took my hand. Gave me hers. It was some kind of gift. A human transmission. I flickered with a deeper recognition I couldn't place.

It all feels like that now. Transmission. Flickers.

It's all on the record, in the archive, on display at the expo. You know what I looked like. What I did. You have the details, the story and all of its bastard children.  Still, I must bleat just once.

Look, I was a c**t. Maybe that's it. Maybe that's all I really want to say. I know it now. It's not a regret. You can't apportion blame - even to yourself. It's an observation. Age makes it easier to actually see. (Generic.)

A c**t on the move. A c**t with intentions. A c**t who cried at his own pain, paper cuts and marriage, it never mattered. I lived filled with tears.

So, there it is. That you are reading this, whoever you are, wherever you are, is enough. I have spoken. You have heard.

The rest is up to you.


2007. Hintsa's Ghost. Johannesburg: Ge'Ko Publishing.

2008. Getting up: thoughts of falling. Johannesburg: Ge'Ko Publishing.

2015. Dub Steps. Johannesburg: Jacana Media.


Charlotte Otter PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 27 May 2015 09:10

Charlotte Otter (1968 - ) was born and raised in Pietermaritzburg. She attended UCT and Stellenbosch, and worked as a student reporter on The Witness during her university holidays. After graduating, she worked at The Star and The Citizen in Johannesburg as a crime and court reporter before joining Anglo American’s corporate communications department. Charlotte moved to Germany in 1996, where she now lives in Heidelberg and works in IT communications. Her first novel,Balthasar’s Gift, which she describes as feminist crime fiction, was published in Germany by Ariadne Verlag in 2103 and by Modjaji Books of Cape Town in 2014. The second in the series, called Karkloof Blue and also featuring headstrong journalist Maggie Cloete, is currently in the works.

Find out more about Charlotte on her website ( She blogs at Charlotte’s Web ( and takes her coffee breaks on Twitter (@charlwrites).


Selected Work
Excerpt from Balthasar's Gift (2014)

Her head whipped around. She saw faces, sunglasses, but no distinct features. Were they after her or the children? Mbali waved to her from the back of the Combi as she rifled through her options. It was fifty-fifty, but at least she’d know. When the traffic light turned green, she made her decision. Sipho trundled straight across the intersection, but she took a fierce left. Looking over her shoulder, she saw that the BMW was following her. That was good, but now she would have to lose them.

She opened the Chicken’s throttle up Victoria Street. It was usually busy, full of offices and small businesses but on this early Saturday evening, it had emptied to a trickle of cars. A few pedestrians turned their heads at the sound of the Chicken’s engine screaming. The BMW kept up easily, its silent progress along the street shark-like, unsleeping, tailing its prey.

In front of her was a red Opel Kadett with two grey heads in the front seats. They crawled along at a genteel pace. She had to get past them, to put some distance between herself and the BMW. She looked at the oncoming lane. There was a truck, thundering down towards Commercial Road and the highway turnoff. She dropped a gear, flashed past the Opel, earning a loud parp from the driver and an even louder bellow from the truck. She slid in front of the Opel just as the truck bore down on her. Now there was one car between her and her pursuers. The Opel’s driver shook his fist at Maggie and conferred with his wife, who shook her head. They had no idea, she thought, that behind them was a team of thugs, possibly armed, who were after the ill-behaved motorcyclist in front.

She turned right just as the traffic light went red. The BMW driver ignored the traffic light, roared around the Opel and turned right behind her. Now the sedan was sniffing the Chicken’s backside. Her breath caught in her throat.
She needed a plan, and fast.
Her apartment block was coming up on the right. They knew she was close to home and she knew that they knew. What would the BMW driver expect her to do? Buzz the security gate and let herself in, hoping it would clang shut before they could follow her?

That was too dangerous. If they got hold of her behind closed doors, who knew how much damage they could wreak before one of her neighbours woke up to the fact that she was in danger. Instead, she changed down another gear and headed into Taunton Road, scene of yesterday’s run. The Chicken’s gearbox screamed but she could feel the rear wheel torque clutch the road tighter. That was what she needed.

Her plan was to get to the top of the hill, across the traffic circle and down into Town Bush Road, where she could lose herself in the plantations. She went there nearly every weekend with her off-road club, and the Chicken was built for leaping dongas and skidding around tight corners.

Blood throbbing in her head, she urged the Chicken up the hill. What she would give to have Bond’s Z8 right now, she thought, teeth gritted. The titanium plating and armour would be of assistance if these bastards started shooting at her. The missile pad would be good if she needed to shoot back.

Then up ahead, just before the road curved into the ravine, a driver in a battered estate car pulled into the road in front of her and her pursuers. Oblivious to the chase going on behind her, the driver cautiously hugged the road’s curves. A black Doberman in the back of the estate lifted his chops and showed her his white fangs.

The BMW nosed her exhaust. They were trying to run Maggie off the road. Her heart flew out of her chest cavity and landed in her mouth. This was not the way she wanted to go. She would die in her sleep, maybe, or have a spectacular heart attack after a lifetime’s indulgence, but she didn’t want to be strawberry jam on a BMW’s fender. The German car’s engine roared in her ears. She could taste metal.

She overtook the estate. It was time to get lost. She wasn’t going to make the plantations.

She looked at the gulley below. Its clogged bush would provide cover. Pulling the Chicken over to the side of the road, and leaving her flank-down on the ground, she dived into the ravine, feet meeting rocks, arms meeting thorny branches as she plunged into its leafy depths. From nowhere, a root snaked out and tripped her. She tumbled. She felt the ice of pain on her forehead before coming to rest against a tree trunk ten metres into the gulley. She heard her breath, ragged gasps, but it was drowned by mynah birds greeting night with their noisy lullaby.

On the crest of the hill above her there was silence. Had her pursuers moved on? Headed off to nose the town’s underbelly for other prey?
‘Can’t see the bitch,’ came a voice from the top of the gulley. A Zulu voice, speaking English.
‘Ja. Probably hit her head on a rock, hey?’ The second voice had a strong Afrikaans accent.

Through her pain, she managed a wry smile. The thugs were too concerned about their designer suits to come sniffing around in the ravine for her. She heard their feet thump. She would give them a few minutes to leave before she clambered up the gulley.

Then she heard it: the sound of metal on metal. She put her fist in her mouth to stop herself from screaming. They were wasting the Chicken. It sounded like they were using mallets. She felt every crunch, every jolt, as they pulverized her bike. The carnage seemed to go on for hours. Then she heard doors slam and the BMW’s growl as it took off.



2014. Balthasar's Gift.  Cape Town: Modjaji Books.

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