Review: Vivien Horler
Blood on her Hands – South Africa’s most notorious female killers, by Tanya Farber (Jonathan Ball)
One late afternoon in 1974, when I was 22, I went with my boyfriend to visit his brother Rob in the boarding house where he lived behind St Paul’s Church in Rondebosch.
Rob hadn’t been in the boarding house long, and his initial relationship with his co-residents was bedevilled by the fact that soon after he moved in, someone’s portable radio had been stolen. As he was the newest resident, suspicion fell on him.
Rob, an engineering student, had also been a victim of crime in the boarding house. He had a pistol, which he kept locked in his wardrobe. One day it disappeared.
We hadn’t been in Rob’s room long when a slim young fellow resident called Marlene strolled in. She had shoulder-length hair, lots of eye make-up, and was wearing a Truworths mini-dress.
My boyfriend and I didn’t know her from a bar of soap, but this didn’t stop her from perching on Rob’s desk, hauling out a nail file to do her nails, and telling us about her unsatisfactory relationship with her older married boss.
She was sick and tired of the situation because he would not leave his wife for her. “I told him straight, I wished his wife would just drop dead, and I meant it.” Now she was thinking of leaving Cape Town and driving to Joburg to start a new life. “I got a Anglia and it goes,” she told us.
My eyes were out on stalks. I’d not met anyone like her before.
Two weeks or so later, a murder made headlines in the local newspapers. One Susanna van der Linde of Bellville had been murdered – pistol-whipped and stabbed to death with a pair of scissors. Within hours Rob told us the woman was Marlene’s lover’s wife.
It all came out at the trial. Marlene had stolen the radio as a bribe for her co-accused, Marthinus Choegoe, who was supposed to kill Van der Linde. Marlene had also stolen Rob’s pistol.
Rob had suspected Marlene was the thief because – we heard later – he had declined her request to shoot Van der Linde. When he reported the theft to the police he fingered her. A detective went to interview Marlene in her room, and then went back emptyhanded to Rob’s room and said with a big smile: “She’s pretty, hey!”
It turned out Rob knew Marlene much better than he’d let on at the time. He had taken a number of topless pictures of her which he sold to the Sunday Times when her murder trial began. Just a month or so ago one of those same pictures resurfaced to illustrate an extract from journalist Tanya Farber’s book Blood on her Hands published in the same newspaper.
In her forward Farber says that statistically women murderers make up only 5% of all killers. What’s more, their murders tend to be more carefully planned. For the book she has selected nine killers, most of whose stories are well-known. While there are many others, Farber says she eschewed the stories of women who murdered a long-term abusive partner, desperate young women who might kill a newborn baby, or a mother who killed a tik-addicted son.
These were women who were living in dire conditions – unlike the women in this book who could not, in Farber’s opinion, blame their circumstances for what they did.
The featured murderers are Daisy de Melker, who poisoned two husbands and her son and was hanged, Marlene Lehnberg, the 18-year-old murderer whom I met, Charmaine Phillips, Joey Haarhoff, Dina Rodrigues who organised a hit on a baby, Najwa Petersen who organised a hit on her husband Taliep Petersen, Celiwe Mbokazi, Chané van Heerden and Phoenix Racing Cloud Theron, who killed her mother Rosemary.
Interestingly, in all but De Melker’s case the women killers acted with men. Sometimes they kept their hands “clean” by hiring hitmen, and in others they took part in the killing themselves. Lehnberg did both – hired a hit man who wasn’t very good and so helped him physically overwhelm her victim.
Each chapter tells the story of one of the women, including their backgrounds, where Farber admits she has used some poetic licence. The final chapter is a look at each of the killers through the lens of local and international experts and psychologists.
The average reader will know most of these stories to a greater or lesser extent, as they were extensively covered in the media. But as Farber points out: “Whether we admit it or not, there’s an insatiable hunger for tales of murder that sit outside the norm, and that’s where female murders come in.”