The fascinating case of Clarence van Buuren, who was hanged for having killed Joy Aken, has disturbed and invaded Chris Marnewick’s conscience to the extent that he wrote a book about it: Clarence van Buuren: Knew the Words But Not the Music (in Afrikaans, Clarence van Buuren: Die man agter die donkerbril).
With the Oscar Pistorius case making headlines around the world, and mirroring the attention around the Van Buuren case, Marnewick spoke to Margaret von Klemperer of The Witness about his attempt at finding out why Van Buuren was driven to murder. His book is a look at the idea of evil, and why a man might kill.
OPEN a local newspaper in February 2013, and it is all about the Oscar Pistorius case. The level of obsession was the same back in 1957 when it was the Clarence van Buuren case.
Those papers are yellow and brittle now, and alongside the murder there is more international news than you can see in these days of the so-called global village. But it was murder that grabbed the headlines.
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While South Africa is currently gripped by the proceedings of a different murder case, Chris Marnewick’s Clarence van Buuren Knew the Words But Not the Music, a work of non-fiction about a murder trial from the 1950s that intrigued him since he was eight years old, was launched at Adams Books in Musgrave, Durban.
Originally written in Afrikaans, and called Clarence van Buuren: Die man agter die donkerbril, the translation was published by Protea Boekhuis late last year. At the launch, Marnewick, a retired senior advocate who worked in Durban for many years, but who now lives in New Zealand, explained that writing the book enabled him to find closure for his “obsession” with this case.
In 1956, 18-year-old Myrna Aken was given a lift by a salesperson, Clarence van Buuren, in Durban. A few days later her naked disfigured body was found on the south coast with the help of a medium. Marnewick, who was at the time only a boy, living in Johannesburg, followed the story closely in the newspapers. By day he would read about the case and Van Buuren’s eventual hanging. By night he would be haunted by nightmares about the murder and the accused’s claims that he was innocent.
“A psychic was the first person to find the body. My book is partly about whether there is any real substance in that claim,” he said. He also examines Van Buuren’s claims that he was innocent, investigating rumours that Aken had had an affair with him. “I also look at the curious parallel between the lives of the police officer, Frans Steenkamp, investigating the case, who left school at 16 because he had no money for school books, and ten years later became a detective sergeant, and the killer who ran away from school at 16, stole a car, was involved in several crimes and imprisoned for five years before writing his exams, qualifying as an engineer, and then for three years leading what appears to be an ordinary life with his wife and two children,” he says.
Marnewick mentioned some of his main sources: a journalist called Gehri Strauss, who had done a series of interviews with the accused while he was imprisoned, and published the stories in The Star. He said Strauss was “objective but empathetic”. After Strauss’ death, his long-term partner Ricky Hamilton gave Marnewick a battered old cardboard suitcase that Strauss had kept full of newspaper reports and magazine articles on the case. Also in the suitcase were notebooks, revealing Strauss’ thoughts as he followed the case, and photographs of the crowds at the trial, the accused and the policemen who caught him, the prosecutors and various locations identified in the investigation. Marnewick brought the suitcase with him to the launch, saying that without it there would have been no book.
He also mentioned the late investigating officer Frans Steenkamp’s wife, Maxi, who had kept the Van Buuren docket after her husband’s death, and allowed Marnewick to use it for his research.
Marnewick explained that the book works as an analysis of Van Buuren’s mental state, and possible motivations for the murder. Why, when he led such a comfortable life, did he commit such a heinous crime? He said the same questions can be asked about Oscar Pistorius, who has been charged with murdering his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. Marnewick said he believes in tangible evil that exists in men, that makes them commit crimes against women.
During the question and answer session, a member of the audience asked Marnewick whether he believed in capital punishment. He said he did not, although he invites the reader to make up his/her own mind in this book. He expressed concern that the act of killing changes one, saying he thought it was bad for the executioners to be doing such work.
Next up for Marnewick is a legal book about bail, followed by a novel, with “lots of sex”. He said he plans for it to be a detective story set in South Africa.
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Protea releases Clarence van Buuren: Knew the Words But Not the Music, the English translation of Clarence van Buuren: Die man agter die donkerbril, this month:
In 1957 Clarence Gordon van Buuren was convicted of the murder of Myrna Joy Aken and executed. He denied murdering her up to the very end.
A young boy, Chris Marnewich, read the details in the newspaper and he had nightmares about them: Why was Van Buuren hanged if he had maintained his innocence?
The case was sensational for several reasons:
- It was alleged that a clairvoyant found the body after a séance
- There were indications of a sexual relationship between Van Buuren and Aken
- There was the crude sexual mutilation of the corpse
The press leapt at the sensation: Women queued outside the court in long lines, trampling each other when the doors opened. Van Buuren enjoyed the attention and he flirted with them during the entire hearing.
Despite all the attention focussed on the case, the author found that the evidence led in court simply was the tip of the iceberg. The police dossier revealed so much more. Information indicated that Van Buuren was a narcissistic psychopath, a sadist who battered women. He was an emotional vampire and a sadistic sex murderer. Or was he? None of this was mentioned in the court case, nor in the newspapers.
When Marnewick decided to reinvestigate the case, the case record had disappeared. Eventually Marnewick tracked it down.
Today, more than 60 years after the murder, we are in a position to relive the crime through Marnewick’s legal eye. The book tells the story of the murder, but it also traces Marnewick’s own journey with the book.
About the author
Chris Marnewick has retired as a senior advocate in Durban. His first book on crime was Shepherds & Butchers and for that he was shortlisted for the M-Net Literary Awards and the Sunday Times Award. Chris is also wrote The Soldier Who Said No and A Sailor’s Honour.
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Doc Immelman se spanningsroman, ‘n Kwartmiljoen Mauserpatrone, word vandeesmaand deur Protea Boekhuis heruitgegee:
Wanneer Wynand Senekal, lid van die Suid-Afrikaanse Geheime Diens, na Suidwes gestuur word om te ondersoek waarom een boer binne ’n kort tydperk duisende Mauserpatrone aangeskaf het, sou hy nooit kon raai wat vir hom voorlê nie.
Terwyl die optrede van die boer Piet Ludeke uiters verdag lyk, vergelyk dit nie in die minste met wat Wynand sien as hy die omgewing van die plaas bespied nie. Dit word skielik duidelik dat hier iets besonder vreemd aan die gang is … Ses ossewaens verskyn, kompleet met trekosse en touleiers, vergesel deur ’n paar bebaarde manne te perd – geklee in kakie en ferweel, geweer en bandelier oor die skouers. Wynand voel meteens asof hy honderd jaar in die verlede teruggeplaas is. Waar kom hierdie mense vandaan en wat wil hulle met so baie ammunisie maak?
Wat volg, is soos ’n koorsdroom.
Oor die outeur
Doc Immelman is ’n meesterstorieverteller, uit wie se pen reeds meer as 40 boeke verskyn het. Sy liefde vir Namibië (waar hy steeds woon) asook sy kennis van en liefde vir jag vind in byna al sy verhale neerslag – en sorg vir ’n tydlose soort ontspanningsliteratuur wat by ou aanhangers sowel as nuwe lesers sal aanklank vind.
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In an interview with The Witness, author Chris Marnewick explains that he wrote Clarence van Buuren: Die man agter die donkerbril, because the murder case against Van Buuren had intrigued him as a child. The book is a form of closure for Marnewick, who as a young boy kept up with the story and sometimes had nightmares about it.
IN 1956, 18-year-old Myrna Aken was given a lift by a salesperson, Clarence van Buuren, in Durban. A few days later her naked disfigured body was found on the south coast with the help of a medium.
In Johannesburg an eight-year-old boy, Chris Marnewick, closely followed the story in the newspapers. By day he would read about the case and Van Buuren’s eventual hanging. By night he would be haunted by nightmares about the murder, and the accused’s claims that he was innocent.
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