Thursday, June 24, 2010

Why James McClure's South African crime fiction is still fresh

James McClure's The Steam Pig violates one rule against which guides to mystery writing sometimes warn would-be authors, but in the end it doesn't matter much.

Why not? For one thing, the literary device in question may have been in greater fashion in 1971, when McClure published the novel, than it is now.

For another, as incisive as the book is in its portrayal of apartheid-era South Africa and the people who live in it, as worthy a winner as it was of the CWA Gold Dagger, it's a first novel. McClure may simply have been in the early stages of developing his craft. And finally, the writing, even in the passage in question, is vivid and compelling.

McClure may remind readers of William McIlvanney, with his breaks in the action for passages of description or reflection. That's a risk in a plot-driven genre such as a crime; the author has better have the writing chops to pull it off. McClure has them.

In his case, the breaks contribute to a sense of ironic amusement and detachment. These form a surprising, dynamic, occasionally shocking contrast with the harsh portrayals of apartheid-era life and hints of police violence. That contrast remains exciting almost four decades after the books' initial publication.
What other older crime fiction remains fresh today? What keeps it that way?
Read about the second Kramer and Zondi novel, The Caterpillar Cop. Read more on South African crime fiction at Detectives Beyond Borders. (Click link, then scroll down.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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Anonymous Jerry House said...

For me, a book that is "fresh" is one that brings a sense of wonder and provides me with a new and positive reading experience.

One that I found fresh (many others might disagree) is Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White. The writing is smooth, the plot sustainable, and Count Fosco is one of the oiliest villians of all time.

Other contenders are Arthur Upfield's Boney series, John Dickson Carr's The Burning Court, Evan Hunter's The Jungle Kids, and Colin Watson's Flaxborough series.

Many of my favorites of long ago are still interesting to revisit but no longer provide "freshness": Dorothy L. Sayers, Sax Rohmer, Richard S. Prather, and the list could go on and on. Surprisingly, Mickey Spillane's One Lonely Night holds up very well, if only because the writing is so damned good.

June 24, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The Flaxborough Chronicles yes, except for a brief passage in Kissing Covens/Broomstcks Over Flaxborough, where Watson has two characters speak entirely in marketing jargon, which must have seemed bold at the time but has not aged well and hits the reader over the head where Watson's satire is usually much subtler.

Watson stays fresh because he remains surprising. He dropped contemporary mores smack into the middle of the English village mystery and managed to do that while retaining great affection for his setting. Anyone could have come up with the concept, but to put into practice is quite an achievement.

Another who surprised me was Arthur Morrison, whose two stories that I've read could have been written in, say, the 1970s rather than the 1890s (except for bits of incidental description, of course).

June 24, 2010  

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