Mrs Kelly’s memorable monster


Mrs Kelly’s memorable monster

KERNEELS BREYTENBACH fancies himself a detective and glories in short stories.


ALL in all, detective stories are in a bit of a mess. The world around us is deteriorating and no serial killer or boogie man, as an ambassador for evil, can truly captivate our attention. Who has the time to be interested in imagined horrors?

This is the dilemma that writers of popular fiction are grappling with. The extremes of human behaviour have been dished up and rearranged so many times that readers shy away. How do you win them back?

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Cult suicide

Before World War 2, British writer Dennis Wheatley published a series of “dossiers" in which readers were given a bunch of documents, examples of handwriting and all kinds of objects which they had to use to solve a murder. The dossiers, Murder Off Miami, Who Killed Robert Prentice? and The Malinsay Massacre, were popular but impossible to keep in print for practical reasons. Too many horns and goiters.

Now Janice Hallett has made a miraculous effort to bring Wheatley's innovative detective formula up to date for 2024 readers. The title is The Mysterious Case of the Alperton Angels. In Wheatley's days, there were phones and people used telegrams if they wanted to convey important news quickly. In Hallett's novel, we get the emails, WhatsApps and social media messages of Amanda Bailey.

In this way, one can follow the development of her investigation (Amanda is a journalist) as she tries to find out why a mysterious cult, the Alperton Angels, committed suicide in London in 2003. There's also another journalist on the scene, one Oliver, and the big question of the novel is whether Amanda will find out before Oliver the identity of the baby who caused the mass suicide. For the cult members believed the baby was the seed of the devil. And what the hell became of the little kid, because babies can't take their own lives?

I initially thought Hallett was engaged in a gigantic gimmick, but you soon get dragged in by the wealth of information and before you know it you're sifting through the information with Amanda. You can't help but participate. As the pages flash by, you realise how complicated and versatile Hallett's dishing up of facts is. It's a different way of storytelling that forces the reader to concentrate hard and maybe start anticipating things Hallett can't reveal to you. One trick of detective writing is that writers can use premonitions and suggestion to prepare you. In Hallett's creation, there is nothing like foreboding.

Will Hallett be able to write another such novel? I doubt it — the shape and style are simply too distinctive. A repeat will inevitably cause a dilution. In the meantime, we can go back in her career and read The Appeal (2022) and The Twyford Code (2023). There are people who claim Hallett is the new Agatha Christie, which is easy to believe. I prefer to think she is a unique new voice sent by the angels of publishing to save us from boredom.

The Mysterious Case of the Alperton Angels by Janice Hallett was published by Profile Books and costs R325 at Exclusive Books.

Mrs Kelly’s Monster

With the death of Jon Franklin last week, one involuntarily thought back to the heyday of New Journalism and the likes of Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote and Hunter S Thompson. Franklin was one of their genius colleagues, evading the spotlight but twice rewarded with the Pulitzer Prize for his literary journalism.

His writing has steered at least two generations of journalists in a specific direction: how to report in a way that makes it read like a story even though the factual grounds are harsh reality. In the Afrikaans context you would find the best examples of this in the Nineties in Sarie magazine, where André le Roux made his mark on the presentation of material.

Writing for Story was published in 1994 and is great to read if you're interested in journalism or the art of the short story. The reason I want to bring this book to your attention is the inclusion of the memorable “Mrs Kelly's Monster", for which Franklin won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979. Once read, never forgotten. It is about brain surgery to remove a growth from Mrs Kelly. (This story is not available anywhere else.)

Writing for Story by Jon Franklin was published by Plume and costs $13.29 at Amazon.

Word gangs

Mark Anthony Jarman (his parents were humorists) is a celebrated Canadian writer of short stories and travel stories. Jarman's sole novel (Salvage King, Ya!) only confirms that he was fragmentary — like his mentor, Barry Hannah. Not adept at long reams of text but brilliant at the short shots. Burn Man is a collection of his best writing — short stories and travel stories (which read like short stories). You read and you hear the voices of William Faulkner and Raymond Carver echoing.

Jarman, a foot soldier of the word gangs, conjures in the title story the sensations of someone burning to death. In “Pompeii Book of the Dead" he visits the theme of man as a seated spectator while his opening sentence lingers, awaiting the kind of illumination that never fully comes: “My wife is from Florida and is moving out of my house while I am in Italy."

Jarman is such a respected writer that one reads his paragraphs over and over. One easily forgets what an exciting genre the short story is until you encounter a master like Jarman.

Burn Man by Mark Anthony Jarman was published by Biblioasis and costs R414 at Exclusive Books.


In Jai Chakrabarti's short stories, Indian and American culture meet. Chakrabarti doesn't have Jarman's genius but the souls in his stories have an equally great chance of having walking prototypes on God's wonderful Earth. Like the woman who was sent from India by Prem Chatterjee's mother to give him guidance: “She was barefoot; the calluses on her feet had calcified into moulds of new skin. She had a protruding boxer's jaw, lips covered with bits of dead skin. Prem tried to avoid her gaze, but he could tell, even obliquely, that she was disappointed in him."

There is something macabre about someone from the most densely populated country in the world writing about people in America who want to have children and start building a family. You know there is joy and sorrow waiting. For example, one of the women talks about the conflicting cultures: “A child diapered by two men." 

Small Sacrifice for an Enormous Happiness by Jai Chakrabarti was published by Alfred A Knopf and costs R560 at Exclusive Books.

♦ VWB ♦

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