Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Mike Nicol on South African crime writing

Circumstances will cut into my blogging time for the next few days, and I've read a pair of South African crime novels recently, so I'm bringing back Mike Nicol's guest post about South African crime fiction. Matters have changed since I first put up the post; several of the authors he mentions have published new books, and at least one has died. Most notably, perhaps, that excellent Cape Town thriller writer, Roger Smith, has come into the picture. But Nicol's essay remains a valuable introduction to and outline of one of the world's most interesting and vibrant crime-fiction scenes. Thanks again, Mike.
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Despite the vibrancy of thriller and crime fiction elsewhere, not much has happened in SA crime fiction over the last five decades. Until recently that is. This isn’t exactly surprising as the cops have been more or less an invading army in the eyes of most of the citizenry since forever. Certainly, come the apartheid state in the late 1940s no self-respecting writer was going to set up with a cop as the main protagonist of a series. It was akin to sleeping with the enemy.

So to get round this, in the late 1950s, a young woman named June Drummond found a way to enter the genre with a novel called The Black Unicorn that used an amateur sleuth to solve the mystery. Hers was the first crime novel in English, although some four years earlier, a popular magazine, Drum, that had a vibrant readership in the townships, ran a series of short stories featuring a character called the Chief. The author, Arthur Maimane, was hugely influenced by the US pulps and the stories were derivative but highly entertaining. Unfortunately they’ve never been collected although there is one to be found in the Crime Beat archives.

In Afrikaans crime fiction also took decades to reach maturity. During the 1950s there’d been cheaply printed novels featuring steak-loving, hat-wearing detectives investigating single murders. Often these stories were set in small towns and tended more towards pulp fiction than noir. After that Afrikaans crime fiction all but disappeared during the height of the apartheid era.

In English the thriller side of the genre was taken up by, most notably, Wilbur Smith and Geoffrey Jenkins, during the 1960s but it was not until the end of that decade that a major figure emerged – James McClure with a novel called The Steam Pig. This book introduced two cops, Tromp Kramer and Mickey Zondi. They would feature in a series that spanned the 1970s, disappeared for the 1980s, and finally ended with a prequel in 1993, The Song Dog. McClure’s twosome have gone some way to setting a convention for SA writers: the clever underling Zondi, the unsubtle Tromp with his built-in racism. In fact the books were highly satiric yet only one was banned, The Sunday Hangman. McClure died [in 2006] , after spending most of his life in the UK in Oxford.

McClure’s absence during the 1980s was filled by a different sort of crime thriller, a series written by Wessel Ebersohn, featuring a prison psychologist, Yudel Gordon, as the protagonist. Ebersohn published five Gordon novels up to 1991. The 1990s, however, were to see a number of changes, not least the change in the country to a democracy with the 1994 general election that ended the apartheid state. Overnight, well, almost overnight, the cops became the good guys and our literature started taking on a different perspective. But it takes some time for a country to mature and give itself permission to write and read escapist books, especially as we’d been used to writing and reading as an act of protest.

For the current crime thriller writers, the 1990s were significant because of a man called Deon Meyer. His novels first appeared in Afrikaans and made it to the top of Afrikaans best-seller lists. Meyer not only revolutionised Afrikaans literature but he was well translated into English and these books opened the genre to new voices. All the same it took a number of years – six in fact – before Meyer was joined on his lonely platform. In 2005 Richard Kunzmann published the first of his Harry Mason and Jacob Tshabalala series, Bloody Harvests, and Andrew Brown won the Sunday Times Fiction Prize for his Coldstream Lullaby – proving that a krimi could out-write the literary reputations. Also new Afrikaans figures appeared: Francois Bloemhof, Piet Steyn, Quintus van der Merwe, and Dirk Jordaan among them.

As for the sort of topics that have engaged these writers, well, initially serial killers – or to put it in a broader perspective, crimes of deviancy – were the subjects of choice for both English and Afrikaans writers. Perhaps in this there was a desire to steer away from the political issues dominating a nation in transition, although this attitude is changing. Social and political concerns are back on the agenda, and the bad guys are now as likely to be politicians, business moguls, and figures of authority as perverts, drug dealers, serial killers and gangsters.

Recent titles include Margie Orford’s Like Clockwork and Blood Rose, Richard Kunzmann’s Salamander Cotton and Dead-End Road, Angela Makholwa’s Red Ink, and Jassy Mackenzie’s Random Violence.
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Meet Mike Nicol and his mates from Crime Beat here. For more information, reviews and interviews with SA crime novelists, check out the Crime Beat blog, which includes a who's who of South African crime writing.

Reliable online book shops selling South African crime fiction are:
Kalahari.net, Loot.co.za and Exclusive Books.

© Peter Rozovsky 2008, 2012

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25 Comments:

Blogger Sucharita Sarkar said...

Thanks for that very pithy and useful brief on SA's history of crime fiction. For somebody whose idea of African crime fiction is based on Alexander McCall Smith (I know, I know, Bosnia is a totally separate country, but the books have passing refernces to neighbouring South Africa, usually unflatteringly) and occasional excursions elsewhere, this post was a very good introduction and eye-opener.

November 22, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

"krimi?"

I remember McClure's The Steam Pig, and Wilbur Smith as well. Other than those two, though, my SA author knowledge stops with Alan Paton. Even in my high school in 1967 the 1940 book Cry the Beloved Country was still being assigned.

November 22, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Sucharita, I presume you mean Botswana, which I think is where Alexander McCall Smith sets his books! He has come to embody African crime fiction to the point where I heard Stanley Trollip, one half of the team that wrote the novel A Carrion Death under the name "Michael Stanley," make a wry reference to "that other writer."

This article was as exciting an introduction and eye-opener for me as it was for you. It gives me a nice list of new books to look for, not to mention another possible travel destination.

November 22, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, I was also interested to note that South Africans use the term krimi for crime novel, just as Germans do. The term turns up on the Crime Beat Web site.

I recognized McClure's name from a recommendation someone made some time back. Other than that, my awareness of South African writing stops about where yours does. At least you've (presumably) read Paton. I have not.

November 22, 2008  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Er, um, no, actually. That book was one of about five choices, and I think I read John Knowles' A Separate Peace instead. But I remember the cover!

November 22, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Then we are about even as far as South African writing is concerned.

I also noticed that the Crime Beat site has capsule reviews in Afrikaans as well as English -- a nice treat.

November 22, 2008  
Blogger seanag said...

I'm glad to be reminded of Deon Meyers again. Whenever I see his books I kick myself for not having read them yet.

Thanks for giving us Mike Nicol's news on the South African crime-writing scene, Peter. It's great to have a kind of timeline of the work that's come out of there.

November 22, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're welcome. I'd been thinking of picking up some Deon Meyer when the opportunity arose to publish Mike Nicol's piece. He did a fine job providing names, titles and context, I'd say.

November 23, 2008  
Blogger barbs said...

As a South African crime fiction fan, I must point out that one can't discuss this genre in South Africa without stressing Mike Nicol's own contribution. Out To Score, which he wrote in conjunction with Joanne Hichens was nominated for the Sunday Times Fiction award which is the major award in this country and his latest release, Payback, has had great reviews in all our major newpapers

November 25, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Barbs, I begin to suspect I may have to leave some extra room in my luggage for books should I visit South Africa. Thanks for the note.

November 25, 2008  
Blogger seanag said...

It's obvious that I'm going to have to keep a notepad by my computer to keep track of all the great book recommendations I'm getting here.

November 25, 2008  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I may have to do the same, or at least to jot down a long list in the notebook I almost always carry with me.

November 25, 2008  
Blogger Kevin McCarthy said...

I thought it was interesting the notion that when the police are the enemy of the people a la apartheid- era SA, crime writers have to find alternatives to cop protag's.

I wonder, perhaps, is this why there was, for so many years, so little quality crime fiction coming out of Ireland as well--particularly Northern Ireland, for obvious reasons.

I remember reading Steam Pig and loving it--I borrowed it from the library in Uppsala, Sweden while living there years back; that library was better stocked with novels in English than some US/Irish libraries I know of--and would see it (only now perhaps) as somewhat of a template for Peeler ie, good man in a bad system, truth outweighing political wrangling etc.

I wonder could the same be said of Russian, for example, and other Soviet satellite countries? Was there much Russian crime fic under past regimes etc. (Again, I'm thinking this b/c Martin Cruz Smith's Arkady Renko was a big influence on Peeler but as he was American and writing from the outside, he doesn't really apply...)

April 04, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I'm not enthusiastic about South-African crime fiction. The two authors I've read (sampled) so far did nothing for me, and I detest PC writing with agendas.
I do like McCall Smith, somewhat to my own embarrassment because I usually dislike cozies as much as the hardboiled stuff. The Mma Ramotswe books are good entertainment with engaging characters, though I can't say the same for his other books. Perhaps the image he gives of Botswana is a tad romanticized, but sometimes we need to be reminded that goodness may exist in some places.

April 04, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kevin: The earliest Irish crime fiction I've read -- The Assassin, by Liam O'Flaherty -- certainly has no police heroes. I had not heard of June Drummond before I read Mike Nicol's piece, but I like his suggestion that "she found a way" to enter the genre. That carries with it tantalizing hints of slyness and even subversion.

I have heard it said that before the Soviet Union fell, any possible development of Russin crime fiction was stunted by the country's imposing literary tradition -- and that Russian readers were content with the classics. I suppose that's another parallel with Ireland, where, I have heard it said, an imposing literary tradition gave birth to anti-genre snobbery.

For me, McClure breaks down categories between cozy and hard-boiled, and humorous and hard-edged. I know no other crime writer like him.

April 04, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., McClure might surprise you, as he surprised me. His protagonists are good men, likeable, strong characters, though vulnerable and flawed in ways that make them endearing. The plots have strong elements of traditional mysteries, but with thriller and even adventure elements. And the books are not PC at all. Rather, they're satirical; they poke fun at prejudices of all kinds. English, Afrikaner, Indian, white, black … all come in for their jabs.

If the ultra-violent nature of some recent South African crime writing has turned you off, I think you might like McClure.

April 04, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

In fact, I.J., I thought of you as I read The Sunday Hangman. I thought: "This is the sort of thing I.J. would think she won't like but really would like if she tried it."

My favorite of the six McClures I've read is The Gooseberry Fool. Other readers like his last novel ,The Song Dog, which has a very funny Nelson Mandela joke. (The book is set the year of Mandela's imprisonment and published two years before he came to power in 1994.)

April 04, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

All right, will keep McClure in mind.

Speaking of "all right", I see that Trumbull consistently spells it "alright." Hmm.

April 04, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, who's Trumbull? I'm reading another book that uses "alright" consistently. This may be yet another example of language changing before our eyes.

I do think McClure just might fit in with what you like in your reading, to judge from your comments here.

April 04, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Sorry. Turnbull. British police procedurals. publ. by Severn House. I notice that another of their authors also uses "alright." It may be the publisher's house rule. (Alas!) I don't think they did this to me, but I don't use the term very often in dialogue, It's somehow wrong for the Japanese. :)

April 05, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're right about its being wrong for Japanese, which highlights a problem for authors of historical-fiction that I think has been discussed here: How does the writer strike a balance between stiff archaism on one hand, and grating, overly casual speech on the other?

April 05, 2012  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Don't forget Malla Nunn, who writes about Emmanuel Cooper, former soldier. The books are set in early 1950s South Africa, and they do reflect the brutality of the apartheid regime.

Nunn grew up in Swaziland, the daughter of an interracial couple. Her family was subjected to the apartheid laws and left, moving to Australia.

Gosh, these word verifications seem like hieroglyphics in 4 point type. How can anyone over 25 read them?

April 06, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, persist at these damned verification words long enough, and you'll get one you can read.

The one novel of Malia Nunn's that I tried to read turned me off with a glaring verbal anachronism: clusterfuck, an expression I've never liked, in a novel set in 1953. I may give her another chance, though, and that information about her background will increase the chances I'll do so. I had known nothing about her biography. Thanks.

April 06, 2012  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

To my own knowledge, Malla Nunn is the only writer who sets her series in apartheid South Africa, whose family suffered from the regime's brutality.

I think her understanding of the situation and the feelings of many who were oppressed by the apartheid government are well expressed in the two books I read so far.


Margie Orford was jailed for her participation in anti-apartheid protests while a student. It sounds like it was very harrowing, although she says that her treatment was not as bad as that received by Africans against whom the laws were primarily directed. I think one of her books deals with her experience of imprisonment.

April 07, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I have read that one of James McClure's novels was banned: The Sunday Hangman, which I recently wrote about here. I would guess this was probably for its sex scenes, good-natured and frank for their time, rather than politics though.

April 07, 2012  

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