Behind the Book: The Satanic Mechanic

The second book in my Tannie (Auntie) Maria murder mystery series is THE SATANIC MECHANIC. Central to the story is a PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) counseling group, run by a man known as the satanic mechanic. South Africa is fertile ground for trauma and healing. I had the joy and the pain of being part of the South African anti-apartheid struggle. Marches, singing, teargas, shooting, prison, assassinations, a State of Emergency (in which the state could detain anyone indefinitely) were my rite of passage from youth to adulthood. I visited detainees and their families, counseled torture victims, interviewed abused women, danced in the streets when Mandela was released and cast my own vote in the country’s first democratic elections. My heart is still singing and my body recovering from these years of intense struggle.

My Tannie Maria books are pure fiction, but of course they are entwined with my reality both past and present. A core theme I explore in THE SATANIC MECHANIC is healing. This reflects my political belief that we need to challenge and transform our reality (not just wallow in our suffering), but it also resonates with my own personal journey to healing. Sometimes this overlap is quite literal. Earlier this month, I had an anaphylactic shock. My body and lungs swelled up. My heart got weak and my breathing was shutting down. I was in a remote, inaccessible area. I genuinely thought I was going to die (and later learned that many people do die from anaphylaxis). But then I remembered the breathing exercise that my fictional satanic mechanic had given to the old man, Tata Radebe in the PTSD group. Tata Radebe was having flashbacks of his torture in which the police placed a wet canvas bag over his head, so he couldn’t breathe. I applied a variation of the exercise to my own breathing, designed to calm the heart and brain, and eventually I was able to draw full breath again. The satanic mechanic saved my life.

Photo by Bowen Boshier

In THE SATANIC MECHANIC, I have a cast of characters that help me to explore a range of political and psychological issues that have touched me. Slimkat is a gentle land-rights activist, who allows me to express my spiritual and political empathy with the earliest indigenous people in South Africa (the San a.k.a Bushmen). The PTSD group gives me the opportunity to explore some of the traumas that South Africans have been exposed too. Maria has been beaten and raped by her late husband. Dirk was conscripted to the racist apartheid army. Ricus (the mechanic) was abused as a child. Lemoni was the victim of an armed robbery. Radebe suffered torture at the hands of the apartheid police. Fatima has been traumatised by violent xenophobia. These stories were all shaped by my own experiences, direct or indirect. I have, for example, counseled a torture survivor who was subjected to the notorious wet canvas-bag over the head method.

My past experience, and my political and psychological beliefs, influence the themes in my writing, but it is my present that helps with the creation of my characters and  my setting. When asked the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” Agatha Christie used to answer, “Fortnum and Mason.” I get mine on special every Tuesday at our local Spar grocery store. You see, I live close to my fictional protagonist, Tannie Maria. She works (as an agony aunt on a small paper) in the small town of Ladismith, an hour’s drive from where I stay in the rural Klein Karoo, South Africa. We share the same semi-arid landscape, wide open veld, big sky, singing frogs and visiting leopards.

Photo by Andrea Nixon

My writing is, of course, also shaped by my reading. I love the old-fashioned cozy crime of Agatha Christie, Erle Stanley Gardner and Dick Francis. And the strong female characters of Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky. I also enjoy the gentle, poetic writing of Herman Charles Bosman and Alexander McCall Smith. And I am inspired by the way Arundhathi Roy and Barbara Kingsolver integrate social issues into their books.

These works must have influenced mine. I have a strong female protaganist, Tannie (Auntie) Maria, with a kick-ass sidekick, and a posh Mary-Poppins type boss. Maria is a plump middle-aged agony aunt who gives recipes as part of her advice, and gets drawn into a murder mystery. The genre is crime, but love, food, psychological and social issues (e.g. abuse of women, apartheid, xenophobia, PTSD, homophobia, environmental issues…) push their way in.

Thus my fiction is closely entwined with my reality. Perhaps this is the same for all writers. But with my Tannie Maria books I find it sometimes borders on magical realism. The synchronicity can be intense. I sometimes write about something, and then find it happening in my own life. I did my best not to include any actual characters from my nearby town of Ladismith (where Tannie Maria lives). But after my book was published, I discovered that some of the people I’d invented, actually do exist. There is a Piet Witbooi who’s a policeman at the Ladismith police station. At a local restaurant I find that for years they’ve been serving ‘Maria’s mutton curry’ – a recipe that I invented and put in my first Tannie Maria book. Art imitating life; life imitating art. Scary. I have started avoiding Ladismith in case I bump into Tannie Maria herself.


Photo by Andrea Nixon

Sally Andrew lives in a mudbrick house on a nature reserve in the Klein Karoo, South Africa, with her partner, artist Bowen Boshier and other wildlife (including a secretive leopard). Sally has a Masters in adult education. She spent some decades as a social and environmental activist and educator, and a few years as the manager of Bowen’s art business. She now writes full time.

THE SATANIC MECHANIC is the second in the Tannie (Auntie) Maria series, following on Recipes for Love and Murder. Her Tannie Maria books are being published in 14 languages by 21 publishers across the globe. In the USA, she is published by Ecco, Harper Collins; and in Canada by Harper Avenue, Harper Collins.

Recipes for Love and Murder was the winner of the Nielsen SA Booksellers’ Choice award 2016, and was selected as one of the best books of the year by Wall Street Journal, Oprah Magazine, and Kirkus Reviews.

“If you want a vivid, amusing and immensely enjoyable read about detection (and cooking) in an intriguing part of southern Africa, then this is the book for you. A triumph.” – Alexander McCall Smith about Recipes for Love and Murder.

Twitter: @TannieSall