Thursday, July 22, 2010

James McClure's last novel and Kramer and Zondi's first case

I'm taking Stanley Trollip's advice on this one. Trollip, one half of the team that writes as Michael Stanley, talked up James McClure's The Song Dog at Crimefest 2010 in May, recommending it at the convention's forgotten-authors panel.

The Song Dog is the eighth and last of McClure's South African series about the Afrikaner Lt. Tromp Kramer and the Zulu Sgt. Mickey Zondi. The novel is a prequel, set in 1962, that will give readers of the previous books the pleasant sensation of meeting old friends.

It was a thrill to see Kramer, dispatched to a town in northern Zululand so small that it lacks a hotel, compelled to board with a woman who rents rooms — and to realize that she is the Widow Fourie, who will loom large and happily in Kramer's life in the books set later but written earlier. And McClure brings Kramer and Zondi together in a manner entertainingly worthy of origin stories.

As in the earlier novels, McClure combines humor with unsparing looks at human depravity, local politics, and the toll exacted on human dignity by apartheid. Here's one of my favorite bits of wit so far:
"As Terblanche had predicted, it did not take Kramer long to reach the main rest camp, his progress through that last mile or so of long, dry grass and flat-topped thorn trees being completely uneventful. He found this disappointing, never having been in a game reserve before, and having rather hoped he'd spot at least one species of lumbering brute he wasn't accustomed to handcuffing."
The Song Dog appeared in 1991, twenty years after the first in the series, The Steam Pig. Ellis Peters and Reginald Hill similarly wrote origin stories for popular fictional detectives years after those detectives had become established hits. Who else has done this? Why do you think authors do it?

(Happily, McClure is no longer forgotten, at least in the United States. Soho Crime is reissuing The Steam Pig and Book Two, The Caterpillar Cop.)
Trollip and his writing partner, Michael Sears, ranked The Song Dog among the top ten African crime novels. Read their appraisal here.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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