Sunday, June 06, 2010

James McClure's outsider's eye on South Africa

It's probably inevitable that sociology barge in when the discussion turns to South African crime fiction.

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.'

"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."
Now, that's a passage that could not have come from a crime novel set anywhere else.

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.)
***
Read Detectives Beyond Borders' discussions of South African crime writing here (click link, then scroll down). Read James McClure's obituary and browse a list of his books. Soho Crime will reissue Steam Pig and Caterpillar Cop this summer, but I found my copy in Hay-on-Wye on an excursion from Crimefest 2010. Thanks to young Emily Bronstein for spotting it.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

Labels: , , , ,

10 Comments:

Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

Reading this I realize how narrow my reading has become. Thanks for the reminder.

June 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Er, I'd hate to think I remind anyone how narrow his or her reading is. I'd rather believe I sound an optimistic tone about the great possibilities in this big, old world.

June 06, 2010  
Blogger Mack said...

I've become a junkie for South African crime fiction. Thus I was happy when Book Depository emailed me that my copy of The Steam Pig has been dispatched. $10.50. I'm looking forward to a series written before the end of apartheid.

June 06, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You may well like reading McClure, then. Caterpillar Cop offered, among other things, a fascinating and nuanced glimpse of apartheid-era South Africa, especially so to this outsider.

June 06, 2010  
Blogger Fred said...

If you are interested in crime fiction from South Africa, I can recommend Malla Nunn's _A Beautiful Place to Die_. She was born in Swaziland. She now lives in Australia.

The first novel in what appears to be a police procedural series is set in South Africa during the early 1950s, just after the apartheid laws were put into effect, and she skillfully weaves the effects of that into her novel.

It's a excellent start to the series, and I'm going to read more by her.

June 07, 2010  
Blogger Mack said...

Thanks for the recommendation Fred. I see that her books are available through the usual on-line sources. A recent post on Crime Beat at crimebeat.book.co.za also recommended her so it looks like I'll have to go over-budget again.

June 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Fred. I'd known Malla Nunn's name but nothing about her. There is much potential in a story set just adter apartheid laws went into effect, and a publisher's blurb call the novel a morally complex tale -- a good sign.

An interesting number of Australia's crime wriers came from southern Africa: Nunn, Peter Temple. David Owen. Temple has spoken of the difficulties of having South African origins.

June 07, 2010  
Blogger Fred said...

Peter,

"a morally complex tale" a good description.

I also occasionally got the feeling during some of the encounters in the novel that I was missing something. I wonder if some nuances were slipping by me since I didn't live there then or even in a similar situation, although, living in Arizona now, I wonder about the future here.

June 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I never got the feeling I was missing anything in "Caterpillar Cop." Perhaps that's because I, like most readers, I suspect, have a few strong ideas about South Africa, so the novel's various nuances confirmed or complicated a small set of preconceptions. Or maybe it's just that McClure is a good writer who knew how to say clearly what he had to say.

June 07, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Mack has l...

Thanks for the recommendation Fred. I see that her books are available through the usual on-line sources. A recent post on Crime Beat at crimebeat.book.co.za also recommended her so it looks like I'll have to go over-budget again.


Crime Beat is as good a Web site and as good a resource as any I can think of on any subject.

June 08, 2010  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home