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.
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