They say hell hath no fury like a woman scorned and a secret society that helps women to get rid of their abusive husbands is the premise of the thriller novel Black Widow Society by South African novelist, Angela Makholwa.
Tallulah Ntuli and her husband seem to be accomplished, upwardly mobile black South Africans with good family values. But Tallulah is trapped in an abusive marriage with her philandering spouse.
At the end of her tether, she organises the death of her husband. Once he is out of the way she decides to help other battered women by forming the clandestine Black Widow Society (BWS), named after a spider with cannibalistic tendencies.
Joining forces with her is Edna Whitehead, a white South African housewife who bumped off her shamefully indiscreet husband who constantly berated her “inability to bear him an heir.” In charge of finances is Nkosazana Khumalo, a tough lawyer and the only unmarried member of the group.
In a secret backroom of Tallulah’s office, the trio covertly assist desperate wives to eliminate their offending partners, collect insurance claims on their behalf, pay their hired gunman Mzwakhe Khuzwayo, and earn enough profits to establish an education fund for vulnerable young women.
The distressed women in this fast-paced book span the gamut of South Africa’s multicultural society. Salome O’Leary is fed up with her womanising husband who has infected her with HIV. Thami Mthembu, daughter of renowned apartheid activists, discovers that her husband is carrying on with her cousin, plans to divorce her, and take half of her substantial estate.
Janine, a young paralegal and former stripper, is convinced by her scheming employer to marry an elderly millionaire with the aim of hastening his death and cashing in on the millions. A woman wants to help her sister get rid of a drug-abusing and violent husband. Over the course of several years the Black Widow Society pulls off crimes so successfully that no foul play is ever suspected.
Quite surprisingly, the only true love affair happens between gunman Mzwakhe and Marie, an Afrikaaner woman. But their liaison remains a secret as mixed marriages are still not broadly accepted in post-apartheid South Africa.
After 16 years of operation, cracks begin to appear in the tight run ship by Tallulah. She and Nkosazana are getting into more arguments about the future of the organisation. A distressed Thami seeks comfort in the arms of young playboy during a drunken fling, and accidentally spills the beans on the Society.
Gunman Mzwakhe’s growing disdain for the fatal business of BWS and his misplaced jealousy lead him down a dangerous road of vengeance. It is a bloody and bittersweet end for the society.
The book has a healthy dose of tension and cliff-hangers, and maintains a page-turning ambience all through. There are plenty of guns, greed, blackmail and assassinations yet the narrative does not get overly gory. However, sometimes too much time is spent on narration which takes the reader away from the action and engaging dialogue.
It is refreshing to read a crime fiction novel in an African setting. Makholwa has done a great amount of research and deftly immerses us into her well-formed characters and their individual situations. The skill probably comes from her former career as a journalist in the 1990s where she frequently reported on crime stories.
Although a thriller, the story explores serious social issues, skewed legal systems and the extent to which desperate spouses will go to regain control of their lives. These real-life themes keep the storyline from feeling too far-fetched.
This is Makholwa's third book. Her 2007 debut novel, Red Ink, made her the first black South African crime novelist.