The Caterpillar Cop (1972), second of James McClure's novels about the Afrikaner police Lieutenant Trompie Kramer and the Zulu Sergeant Mickey Zondi, is full of the telling glimpses at race relations in apartheid-era South Africa we outsiders will look for, and the glimpses are richer than what Americans usually get.
There is the sharp separation between black and white, of course, blacks addressing whites as "father" or "boss." There is the jovial familiarity with which Zondi interviews black witnesses, contrasted with Kramer's more formal interaction with whites. Beyond this, the shabby treatment of South African Indians is graphically invoked, as is the burning contempt of some English South Africans for the Dutch-descended Afrikaners.
There is the casual indignity to which a white cop subjects Zondi ("`Sorry, I can't think straight,' he said. `This cold is a bastard. Can Zondi go out for some tissues?'" The resolution of this tissue issue is a nice example of Zondi and Kramer's partnership.) And there are the novel's closing words:
"But Kramer laughed. `Don't blame me, Captain — blame Professor Aardvark.'Now, that's a passage that could not have come from a crime novel set anywhere else.
"And he thoroughly enjoyed his little in-joke.
"Zondi was able to share his amusement. It was he who had shown the Lieutenant that the first word in any English language was, in fact, Cape Dutch."
Back to outsiders. McClure was born in Johannesburg and began his journalistic career in South Africa before moving to England in 1965. His first crime novel, Steam Pig, won the 1971 CWA Gold Dagger for best novel. Thirteen books followed. McClure died in 2006.
I wonder whether he found it easier (and safer) to cast a critical eye on South African society once he had left the country. (Caterpillar Cop also contains bits that the Dutch Reformed Church could not have been happy with.)
© Peter Rozovsky 2010