Wednesday, March 1, 2023

African Crime Fiction by AI and the “other" way

I was going to write about the history of African crime fiction in contrast to African-American crime fiction, but then I discovered that it was too much to put in one post (I dread readers’ eyes glazing over with too much material). So, it might end up as two or three parts. I’ll start with African crime fiction, which Michael Sears and I have often spoken about.

Then, another thought struck me: could I come up with a satisfactory post using Artificial Intelligence (AI) and thereby save some time? (Admit it, it does take time to do a good post). Anyway, here’s what I found.

History of African crime fiction by AI

Chat.openAI generated several versions of this topic (you can generate any number you wish). One of the better ones follows:

"African crime fiction has a rich history that spans several decades. The genre emerged as a form of social and political commentary on the continent's unique struggles with colonialism, post-colonialism, and ongoing conflicts. Below is a brief overview of the history of African crime fiction:

  1. Pre-colonial era: Prior to European colonization, African storytelling traditions included tales of crime and punishment. These stories were often used to teach moral lessons and reinforce community values.

  2. Colonial era: During the period of European colonization, crime fiction began to emerge as a genre in African literature. One of the earliest examples is "The Palm-Wine Drinkard" by Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola, published in 1952. This book combines elements of traditional African folklore with modernist writing techniques and explores themes of crime and punishment.

  3. Post-colonial era: In the decades following independence, crime fiction continued to grow in popularity in Africa. One of the most influential African crime fiction writers of this period was South African author James McClure, whose "Kramer and Zondi" series explored the complexities of apartheid-era South Africa.

  4. Contemporary era: Today, African crime fiction continues to thrive, with writers from across the continent producing gripping, socially relevant works. Some notable contemporary African crime fiction writers include Nigeria's Nnedi Okorafor, whose "Who Fears Death" explores issues of gender and violence in post-apocalyptic Africa, and South Africa's Deon Meyer, whose "Thirteen Hours" is a fast-paced thriller set in Cape Town.

In addition to exploring issues of crime and justice, African crime fiction has also served as a means of showcasing the continent's diverse cultures, languages, and perspectives, and has contributed to the ongoing global conversation about the nature of crime, punishment, and justice.

I wholeheartedly agree with that last paragraph. Well said! However, the AI-generated content has significant misstatements. Correct: Deon Meyer is indeed a South African crime/thriller writer with a longstanding body of work, but I would hesitate to call THE PALM-WINE DRINKARD a work of crime fiction. Although I won’t discuss that book in detail, reviewers perceive it arguably as science-fiction, realism, fantasy, or some combination. Likewise, Nnedi Okorafor’s works are (correct me if I’m wrong) probably more science-fiction and magical realism than crime fiction as we like to think of it. So, I’m not terribly impressed with the AI rendition.

History of African crime fiction by conventional search engine

I was a little surprised that I didn’t find an article or blog titled “History of African Crime Fiction” as such, although our own Michael Sears notes in a blog:

Africa has a long tradition of excellent crime fiction both from international writers who set their books here (for example, Agatha Christie’s 1937 Death on the Nile and Elspeth Huxley’s three Kenya murder mysteries also written in the 1930s) and from African writers, such as South African James McClure, who surgically deconstructed apartheid-era policing in South Africa with his Kramer and Zondi mysteries, winning the CWA Gold Dagger Award for his debut novel, Steam Pig.

Like the AI-generated account, Michael gives James McClure his due.

A poster for DEATH ON THE NILE in Thailand

The development of the African crime novel

One of the most comprehensive and academic examinations of African crime fiction is from my friend Dr. Karen Ferreira-Myers in her article,* AFRICAN CRIME FICTION: THE WORLD AS IT IS OR THE WORLD AS WE WOULD LIKE IT TO BE? Karen is at the University of Swaziland where she is the Modern Languages and Linguistics Coordinator for the Institute of Distance Learning. Karen makes it clear that African crime fiction is a relatively new phenomenon and points out that although the crime fiction is growing in importance in Africa, it has for a long time been poorly received. This has been a concern for me as well, but it’s clear from my Ghanaian Instagram followers and requests for my novels in Ghana that the situation is improving.

Some of the African attitude to the African crime novel may have been inherited from the colonial powers, e.g. France and the Francophone African countries don’t regard crime fiction as “true literature,” whatever that means. Karen notes that in the 1980s and 90s that several Senegalese authors including Modibo Keita and Assé Gueye and Cameroonians such as Jean-Pierre Dikolo produced crime novels. In Agence Black Bafoussa by Congolese Achille F Nagoye, the murder victim is an African living in France. Other crime novels came out of Angola, e.g. José Eduardo Agualusa and Pepetela.

African crime novels provide entertainment, but the African flavor might intrigue or baffle the Western reader. Karen relates some of the observations of Nagoye and Abasse Ndione that distinguish the African crime novels.

  • Omens
  • Human sacrifices during witchcraft rituals
  • Occultism, witchdoctors, and healers
  • “The strong presence of the irrational in a genre that sings the praises of reason upsets the system of the crime novel (Braceleret, 2007)
One can add to this list the bungling and corrupt performance of African governments and police services, something I do relentlessly in my novels and will probably never cease to do. But it’s not a monolith, because for example, as Michael and Stanley’s novels show, the Botswana authorities are a lot more modernized and efficient than those of Ghana, which just can’t seem to get their s**t together. Mind you, it’s great material for stories!

African crime fiction: the dream and reality

South African crime novels like those of Deon Meyer or Jassy Mackenzie write tough with the harsh, unforgiving reality of murder and other violence. There are no dreams here. In a softer, sweeter version of crime fiction, Alexander McCall Smith gives the reader a look at African society that is far more sanguine,  maybe even genteel, as Mma Ramotswe solves the cases that come to the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.

Back to AI
It’s clear from the above that AI has a long way to go. Besides technical details and facts that it can get wrong, it lacks nuance and the ability to go in-depth with a topic. This may change, of course, but for now, we still have to crawl through the literature available on the internet the old-fashioned way. There is no quick fix. Yet. 

*Karen Ferreira-Meyers, « Le polar africain », Afrique contemporaine 2012/1 (No

241), p. 55-72.DOI 10.3917/afco.241.0055



  1. Thanks for this post, Kwei. I must say that I'm surprised by how well the AI program actually does. There is a long way to go, but these things seem to travel quickly once they get going!

  2. Hi Kwei. Thanks for this post. I just sent it to my students, as many of them have been experimenting with the AI bot in trying to get "fake" screenplay scenes by me...I guess I am old fashioned enough not to want even more humans to be replaced, but it was interesting to see how close it got and it also introduced to two new writers, so that information is always great, however it's delivered.

  3. The word I heard in researching and in response to my post about AI is that it is in its infancy and will grow into a much more “reliable.” No matter, I will always want to things written by humans.

    It is interesting to me that the AI essay includes only African crime fiction written by African born writers—clearly a rightful distinction. Michael’s posts on the subject usually also include writers born elsewhere who set stories in Africa. I write “about” Africa. (As Jeff writes about Greece.) It would be interesting to compare and contrast all these various approaches and subgenres.

  4. Kwei, thanks for taking the time to run and analyze your AI chatbots' take on mysteries. I must admit though, that your findings and Wendall's experience with her screen writing students, brings me to a less than happy place. As imperfect as AI may be at the moment, I don't take much comfort in it remaining that way for long. After all, when the current state of AI is compared to the not so distant past when computers--with tiny screens hooked up to behemoth but slow CPUs --offered computing capacities far less powerful than what exists today in many children's toys, I find it inevitable that changes to the arts and so much more will rapidly be upon us. How can it not be when the world's largest tech companies are battling each another for domination of AI through proprietary chatbot systems. Dare we imagine what will happen once--not if--they agree on a common OS?