Thursday, December 10, 2015

South African Crime Fiction in the Wide World

Michael - Thursday

We've had a couple of very interesting pieces around mystery fiction writing this week, and it made me want to weigh in on the South African crime fiction front.  When I thought about it, I realized that a piece Stanley and I had written as an afterword to a collection of South African mystery short stories summed it up pretty well - or at least as well as I was going to do from scratch. Furthermore, the collection was never distributed outside South Africa so most people probably haven't seen the piece before. So I thought I would update it and present it here.

Alexander McCall Smith at home
Over the last fifteen years there has been an explosion of authors writing contemporary crime fiction in South Africa.  How have readers elsewhere in the world reacted to this new and rich perspective on the country?  We have great writers and a few have made the breakthrough into the international arena.  No easy feat with book markets shaky everywhere.  Our previous US editor, bemoaning less than stellar sales, told us that Americans aren’t interested in Africa or South America.  But can that be true?  Look at the remarkably popular No1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series.  Surely it is the strong sense of place and culture, as well as the good feelings generated by a simpler and more predictable world, that has made Mma Ramotswe an international favorite.  Alexander McCall Smith was born in Zambia, spent several years in Botswana, and his first book was published in South Africa.  So he is an African author writing about Africa, even though now he lives in Scotland.
 The UK has deep historical ties with Africa in many ways, and one of them is crime fiction.  Among the earliest mysteries set in Africa were those of Elspeth Huxley’s Kenya series.  The first serious attempt to focus on South Africa using crime fiction was James McClure’s Kramer and Zondi series written from England during the apartheid years.  (The books have recently been reissued by Soho Crime.)

James McClure
Although McClure was born in Johannesburg, he wrote his books some time after he’d emigrated to England.  Why did he choose the crime novel as a vehicle to display the situation in South Africa?  McClure had this to say about it in a 1988 interview: “I wanted to write about South Africa in a context which would allow South Africa to become incidental to the story.  Which doesn’t mean it isn’t very much part of the story.  Unlike some other writers about South Africa, I try to make sure that the action is peculiar to that environment and arises out of it.” 

The Song Dog
His series of novels is set in a fictitious town called Trekkersburg and revolves around the exploits of Lieutenant Tromp Kramer and his assistant, Bantu Detective Sergeant Mickey Zondi.  The relationship between the two men, and their interactions in the conservative Afrikaans town, do as much to illustrate and denigrate apartheid as the works of many, much bigger name South African writers.  With the crime novel being such a natural way of exposing society and its issues, why were local writers ignoring the genre at the time?  Perhaps they had more serious things to say?  McClure was quite dismissive of that, saying: “That way, you preach to nobody but the converted, usually – or to the so-called intellectual reader.  You’re not reaching the ordinary guy at all.”  In fact, he didn’t enjoy their work (except for Charles Herman Bosman), questioning – among other issues – their lack of humor.  “It’s all as deadly serious as a political meeting.  I always hear laughter as well as sobbing when I recall life in Africa.”

But McClure only recalled life here.  From within South Africa, Wessel Ebersohn wrote three grueling psychological thrillers exposing the reality of the security police and exploring the nature of evil.  They were initially banned.  Chris Marnewick did so too in his award winning novel Shepherds and Butchers, originally written in Afrikaans.  And the exposé of that grim era through crime fiction continues today with Malla Nunn’s historical crime novels written from Australia. 

Deon Meyer at home
It was Deon Meyer who took up McClure’s cudgel, using crime fiction set in the post-apartheid era, albeit steeped in its aftermath, to illustrate present day South Africa.  He writes in Afrikaans, and ten years ago in an interview he lamented the isolation of writing in a neglected genre and a parochial language.  But he persevered, and now he has won a slew of prizes, and his novels have been translated into twenty languages.  Over that ten year period there has been an explosion of crime fiction written and set in South Africa, much of it very good.  Deon was joined by Andrew Brown, Wessel Ebersohn (who re-emerged after a long silence), Joanne Hichens, Richard Kunzman, Sarah Lotz, Jassy Mackenzie, Sifiso Mzobe, Mike Nicol, Margie Orford, Roger Smith and several others.  Local readers and critics have been enthusiastic.

Every writer wants recognition and acceptance from his or her home market; usually it’s the readers in that market who can vouch for the reality of the sense of place, the natural behavior of the characters, the believability of the plot.  (Sometimes an external perspective can be interesting and even successful.  French writer Caryl Férey’s Zulu, set in South Africa, won numerous prizes, but wasn’t that highly regarded here.)  But how is the new wave of crime writing in South Africa to move to the international arena?  Do we even want that to happen?  South Africa has a wonderful flair for mixing languages and concepts that is hard to translate.  But the market here is small.  Writers want to be read and paid enough to make it a profession rather than a hobby.

Deon's latest book
 - one of his best for my money 
Deon Meyer is now well-known in the US, and his primary publisher is in the UK.  Roger Smith and Jassy Mackenzie are also building momentum in the US.  They attend mystery book conventions, do book tours and signings, and have been shortlisted for, and won, international awards.  There can be no question that their novels are being well received.  But some of our writers have to rely on the ebook market, as publishers hesitate to take on unknown authors.  The problem is getting known and there is no avoiding author marketing in the forms of meeting readers and doing signings, participating in internet chat groups and blogs, and linking with authors already better known overseas.  The US market is flooded with novels, and there is no doubt that South Africa is struggling to make its voice heard over the volume of excellent European and British writers.  Nevertheless, there is fashion in crime novels just as there is in everything else, and there is some feeling that African crime fiction may be the next fashion.  On our book tours around the US, we have found independent mystery bookstore owners interested in South African crime fiction and keen to find out about other writers and how to obtain their books. Europe is a different story, but Deon Meyer, Roger Smith, and Mike Nicol have their books in the top league in Germany.  

When asked in an interview what makes his books transferable over continents and cultures, Deon Meyer replied, “I think stories are an international language.  Characters too.”  That’s certainly true, but there may be more to it.  Some readers are looking for an understanding of other countries and other cultures.  Sick of the sound bites on television, they turn to fiction that might reflect reality in a more balanced way.  Others are armchair travelers seeking a strong sense of place.  Perhaps the most important group is looking for a style different from that of its own writers.  Think about the wildly successful Scandinavians – Mankell, Nesbo and, of course, Larson.  The cold seeps into your bones, the darkness seeps into your heart.

Watch this space...
A counterbalance to Nordic Noir is Sunshine Noir where the unrelenting heat and glaring light challenge the the cold and snow. Most southern African crime fiction fits into that space.


  1. You are my sunshine, Stan. And thanks for introducing us to a lot of other sunbeams down your way.

  2. Michael, the new trend toward African crime fiction is a consummation devoutly to be desired. Up with Sunshine Noir!!