Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Steam Pig: James McClure's South African reality check

How's this for a breathtaking bit of local setting? (It's from The Steam Pig, first of James McClure's Kramer and Zondi South African police procedurals, first published in 1971 and newly reissued in the U.S. by Soho):
"You were born in the Cape?"

Her scornful laugh brought his head up sharply in surprise.


"Why do you people always think coloreds are all born in the Cape?"

Again, that curious overreaction on her part.

"Where then?"

"Durban."

"And—?"

Kramer's ballpoint hovered, ready to set the date down. But the pad slid unheeded from his knee a moment later.

"And I was born white," Mrs. Francis said. "We were all born white. The whole family. And we lived white, too."
Not bad for a first novel, I'd say. It must be passages like that that moved a contemporary reviewer to call McClure "a writer of great skill and humanity."

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of McClure's apartheid-era novels to readers almost forty years later is the blend of breezy banter in the English style with acute portraits of the period's ugliness. The result may shock today's more sensitive readers, at least American ones, but I call it an impressive achievement.

Here's one example:
The Colonel was flattered.

"Put it this way, Lieutenant—I never allow a wog to touch my delphiniums," he said.
Here's another, the opening of the novel's second chapter:
A suspect in the next room screamed. Not continuously, but at irregular intervals which made concentration difficult. Then the typewriter unaccountably jammed. The report was not going to be finished on time.

That's good stuff, and more damning than a straightforwardly angry polemic would have been.

The Steam Pig won the CWA Gold Dagger for best novel of 1971. Read about the second Kramer and Zondi novel, The Caterpillar Cop, here. Read more about South African crime fiction at Crime Beat, and browse the table of contents and selected articles from Mystery Readers Journal's Spring 2010 issue on African mysteries. Finally, read this touching obituary of McClure, who died in 2006.

McClure was born in Johannesburg and educated in Pietermaritzburg, seen by many as the model for his fictional Trekkersburg. He moved to Britain with his family in 1965. Here's an intriguing footnote from Wikipedia's article about the Kramer and Zondi series:

Perhaps inevitably the books received lukewarm reviews in his home land. The mystery of McClure's Trekkersburg mysteries: Text and non-reception in South Africa Peck, R; English in Africa; May95, Vol. 22 Issue 1, p48, 24p
© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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34 Comments:

Blogger seana said...

Soho is doing a great service bringing books of this caliber back into print again. Among other, better reasons, it gives me a second chance to read what I didn't get to the first time around.

June 22, 2010  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

I really should give those another try. I remember not liking Steam Pig much when I picked it up 30 years ago, but I don't remember why.

June 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I'm not sure how much older crime fiction Soho has brought back into print. The Janwillem van de Wetering novels had probably been out a little while when Soho published them, and I think Seicho Matsumoto's work had been around for a bit, too. I'm not sure if it had been published in English translation before Soho brought it out, though.

These McClure novels are splendid and wonderfully timely additions, buttressed by Soho's publication of Jassy Mackenzie's "Random Violence." It's a good time to be publishing South African crime writing.

June 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, I would be curious about how you might like the novel if you reread it, older and wiser as you must be.

June 22, 2010  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

Gotta love a light touch. Also, that cover is stupdenous. Yes, I know, I'm not supposed to judge the book by it. But it's somehow beautiful and unsettling at the same time.

June 22, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Magdelan Nabb is another, and I believe there are more.

June 22, 2010  
Blogger Sean Patrick Reardon said...

Peter,

Thanks for the info on McClure. "The Steam Pig" sounds interesting. Just wrappping up "Wake Up Dead" and am surely looking for some more SA crime fiction to read.

June 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Loren, my one apprehension is that some readers may think a light touch inappropriate for a book set in apartheid-era South Africa. But that only throws the ugliness into sharper relief.

That's a vaguely unsettling cover, all right (and actually not the one from my edition, so I haven't studied it in detail).

June 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, so Soho brought Magdalen Nabb back into print rather than putting her there in the first place?

June 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Sean, the McClure books are a good place to start. You might also take a look at this guest post from Mike Nicol of Crime Beat (South Africa).

June 22, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

As to Nabb, yes, she had other publishers. I seem to remember that she was out in mass market paperback when I first came across her, but in any case, Harper Collins published her before Soho.

June 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The first Van de Wetering novel I bought was in a mass market paperback, too, though Soho later published that novel, as well. I say "later," but I don't know the dates of the editions.

June 22, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Yes, I read all those Van de Weterings originally in mass market format. I happen to think it's a good format for mysteries and crime fiction, though the trend is definitely away from it.

June 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A good format because cheaper?

June 22, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Partly. But also because they are alternatively called 'pocket books' for a reason. You could stick one in a coat pocket or a purse and not feel too encumbered. Even the latest "innovation" which is to add an extra inch to the height and make the type bigger has both added to the price by a couple of bucks and to the awkwardness. I've had plenty of people tell me they don't care for the "premium editions" but that doesn't seem to matter to the publishers. I notice though that the mass market editions of Steig Larsson's first two books are back to the smaller size and price. I suppose that's because a trade size edition is also available for those who find the typeface to small in mass.

June 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've seen the trade and mass-market editions of the Stieg Larsson novels displayed side by side, which only adds to the impression of the Larsson phenomenon's vastness.

Do there need to be mass-market editions of more crime fiction than just airport books?

Perhaps we need bigger pockets and not smaller books.

June 22, 2010  
Blogger Sean Patrick Reardon said...

Peter,

Excellent post that you referred me to, very informational and helps me understand the evolution of crime fiction in SA.

June 22, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

I suppose the discussion of book format is almost obsolete anyway. Word filtering back from the BEA was the publishers' rush to abandon storefronts and printed books altogether and just get on with the EBook project. I can't think of anything that will reverse that trend, other than an electromagnetic burst from the sun which takes them all down at once.

The Ebooks, I mean, not the publishers.

June 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, we'll always be able to commit the unpatriotic project of turning our backs on commerce and spending our lives reading old books -- at least until Goggle, Amazon and Apple get green and organize mass recyclying drives that will focus heavily on books.

June 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Sean, Mike Nicol nicely indicates James McClure's important place in the history of South African crime fiction, I think.

June 22, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I'd rather have a trade-sized book but larger type, as many trade paperbacks' print is too small for so many of us, especially the middle-aged crew.

Also, glad to see that McClure wrote about apartheid, however he did it. There was room and still is for every style of writing, subtle and not subtle. I'd find it hard to have a light touch if someone were being tortured in a room near me and I could hear or see the person.

All of it helped from Nadine Gordimer's writing to the bravery of the South African people standing up to the world's outcry.

I think Peter Temple has written about why he left South Africa and moved to Australia, and his intolerance of apartheid. Good guy and glad that he won the award.

June 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, what's effective about that screaming bit is that I quoted its entirety. It is wholly incidental to the main action, the only such instance in the book. The very off-handedness makes it all the more chilling.

Peter Temple has talked about a certain guilt attached to white people of a certain age from South Africa.

Do you mean you'd rather have a larger book? I ask because trade paperbacks are generally (or always) larger than mass-market books. Maybe I'll let Seana answer this one.

June 22, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

I assume larger type, which is not always true even in trade size books. Unfortunately, one of the advantages of ereaders is that you can change the size and even the style of the font at will. Sigh.

June 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, that is the sole advantage of e-readers as far as I can tell. One can change the font size at will, a boon heretofore unimaginable for anyone who could not afford a cheap magnifying glass that never runs low on battery power.

June 22, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

Right! For years, my dad used a cheap magnifying glass when he needed it.

No, I'm for solid hands-on books I can hold, turn pages, put in page markers, pile up near me, put in my bag and carry with me wherever I go--and, if it's my copy, dog-ear pages. And, loan it to friends, a very good aspect of real books, as our book inter-loan system is quite active.

I don't like reading fiction any other way.

I think I mean a mass market size book with larger type, so I can fit it in my bag or jacket pocket, although there would be more pages, true.

I end up giving away pb books whose type is too small or bringing them back to the library and requesting the hardcover version--which, sometimes is not purchased by the library system.
So, I'm out of luck.

June 22, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Oh, okay. I think that this is what they're doing with their 'premium' editions of recent years. I always thought it was just about getting a few more bucks but maybe they're actually trying to meet the needs of their aging readership.

June 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kathy, I think e-books have more advantages for sellers and publishers than for readers. Store a book electronically, and you don't have to bother with warehouse space and staff, which are expensive to maintain.

Well, I suppose instant delivery is an advantage for readers, marginal in most cases, large in some, perhaps. But what are the advantages most often cited for e-readers? You can carry hundreds or thousands of books at a time? Why would you want to?

Price? How much cheaper are most new e-books than a mass-market or even trade paperback?

June 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I'm not sure I'd seen "premium" editions discussed before you brought them up. My first rule would be not to trust anything called "premium."

I suppose if I ever did see such editions, I assumed they were trade paperbacks. We may have discussed this before, but I don't remember why the trade-paperback phenomenon got started in, I think, the early 1980s. Were the marketed as cheaper but still handsome alternatives to hardcover books?

June 22, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

I remember when the trade paperback sort of hit its stride, but I wasn't working at a bookstore at the time. I remember that they seemed a bit luxurious and I don't remember buying any. But they've crept in.

I think e-readers probably are good for travel. But the thing about them is that once you've made the rather expensive initial investment, the inclination is to get good use out of one. I think once people have invested in one and adapted to it, they are disinclined to go back.

Yes, a lot of us still like books. But there are attacks on that position from all sides and the core group of book readers doesn't grow.

v word=papersh, which I interpret as something stronger censored.

June 22, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I seem to remember Vintage bringing out surprisingly thin, surprising colorful editions of people like Richard Ford at cover prices somewhere around $8.95 -- noticeably more expensive than conventional paperbacks at the time but cheaper than hardbacks.

I always assumed e-books would be good for travel, but how much of an advantage are they? How often do people travel with many books? I do so more than most, I suspect, but rarely will a travel with more than two or three, which do not take up that much more space than an e-reader would. And, one cannot even use them on planes during takeoff and landing, when all electronic devices must be turned off.

I suppose they'd be good for reading on overnight flights in the dark, though.

v word=papersh, which I interpret as something stronger censored.

Or else a slogan for the most realistically booklike e-reader yet: It's paperish!

June 22, 2010  
Anonymous kathy d. said...

I'll hold out for real, hold-in-my-hand-and-turn-pages books. I like everything about them and I'll be a holdout on this and take a stand.

It is better to get slightly larger print in paperbacks as it would be inconvenient to bring a magnifying glass to a coffee shop, dentist's office or park bench, not to mention the eccentricity of it.

And carrying a hard cover around is not easy.

June 24, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'll be holding out along with you, I expect.

June 24, 2010  
Blogger Mack said...

I finished The Steam Pig about 20 minutes ago. I love the way McClure wrote the relationship of Kramer and Zondi, the way they worked as a team within the political and cultural limits forced upon them. You can see that Kramer has more respect for Zondi than any of the white members of CID.

June 25, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No doubt some readers will object to Kramer's occasional use of the word kaffir. I would point them to Kramer's sticking up for Zondi in every situation and, more to the point, to Kramer's scorn whenever anyone assumes the "Bantu servant" was to blame for some crime -- and in these books, someone is always ready to hand out such blame.

June 25, 2010  

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