Jan 8 2015 5:00pm

Southern African Crime Fiction on the World Stage

Over the last ten years there has been an explosion of authors writing contemporary crime fiction set in southern Africa. Four of the ten crime fiction novels published in South Africa last year were debut authors to the genre (Kurt Ellis, Penny Lorimer, Joanne Macgregor, Charlotte Otter). How have readers elsewhere in the world reacted to this new and rich perspective on the country? The reality is that with the publishing industry in turmoil, few of our authors have made the breakthrough into the international arena that they deserve.

We’ve been told that Americans aren’t interested in Africa, while the UK fiction book market is in such a slump that no one will take a chance on anything different. Yet some books set in Africa have been wildly popular – one thinks of Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Ramotswe and the Wilbur Smith novels. Surely it’s the strong sense of place and culture, as well as the good feelings generated by a simpler and more predictable world, that has made The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency an international best seller. 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. Wilbur Smith, also born in Zambia, has been wildly successful with his historical adventure stories set in and around South Africa.

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. Also, Agatha Christie set a thriller in southern Africa – The Man in the Brown Suit – and, of course, there’s her famous Death on the Nile. Since then many British authors have set mysteries in Africa.

The first serious attempt to focus on Southern Africa using crime fiction was James McClure’s Kramer and Zondi series written during the apartheid years. His first novel – The Steam Pig – won the Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger in 1971.

Although McClure was born in Johannesburg, he wrote his books after he’d emigrated to England. Why did he choose the crime novel as a vehicle to display the situation in South Africa? He 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.” 

His novels are set in a fictional town called Trekkersburg and tell of 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 Afrikaner town, do as much to illustrate and denigrate apartheid as the works of 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.”

McClure only recalled how life was here. From within South Africa, Wessel Ebersohn wrote three psychological thrillers, exposing the reality of the security police and exploring the nature of evil. They were initially banned here. 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. 

It was 25 years later that Deon Meyer took up McClure’s challenge and used crime fiction set in the post-apartheid era to illustrate contemporary South Africa. His first book in English – Dead Before Dying – came out in 1999. He writes in Afrikaans, and more than ten years ago in an interview, he lamented the isolation of writing in a neglected genre and a parochial language. But since then, he’s been translated into more than 20 languages and been joined by a host of fine writers exploring South African culture through the medium of crime fiction: Andrew Brown, Joanne Hichens, Richard Kunzman, Sarah Lotz, Jassy Mackenzie,  Sifiso Mzobe, Mike Nicol, Margie Orford, Roger Smith, and others.

Local readers and critics have been enthusiastic, but the market here is small, and publishers are leery of fiction that can’t move to the international arena.  Yet how is the new wave of crime writing in South Africa to do that? Do we even want it to happen? South Africa has a wonderful flair for mixing languages and concepts that’s hard to translate, but writers want to be read and paid enough to make it a profession rather than a hobby.

Deon Meyer is now well known internationally. When asked in an interview what makes his books transferrable over continents and cultures, he 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 less superficial way. Others are armchair travellers seeking a strong sense of place.

Our own mysteries are set in Botswana and feature a large and overweight detective in the Gaborone Criminal Investigation Department. His nickname is Kubu (which means hippopotamus in the local language), and he struck a chord with readers. Entertainment Weekly called him ‘the African Columbo.’ However, setting is also important to our readers, and many tell us they enjoy seeing Botswana from an insider’s perspective. For our part, we like the freedom of being able to explore southern African issues without being restricted to the context of post-apartheid South Africa.

Other readers are looking for a writing style different from the ones they are used to. Think about Nordic Noir and the wildly successful Scandinavians – Mankell, Nesbo and, of course, Larson. The cold seeps into your bones, the darkness into your heart. On the other hand, the searing heat of the African sun can be just as frightening – call it Sunshine Noir, if you like!

If you have an interest in foreign cultures and want to understand southern Africa from the inside, give the authors we’ve mentioned a chance. Try them out.

South Africa’s tourist slogan is a world in one country. We think you’ll find that with our crime fiction also. Welcome.

Comment below for a chance to win a signed copy of Deadly Harvest by Michael Stanley, a mystery set in Botswana where little girls keep going missing.

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Deadly Harvest Comment Sweepstakes: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN.  A purchase does not improve your chances of winning.  Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States, D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec), who are 18 years or older as of the date of entry.  To enter, complete the “Post a Comment” entry at beginning at 5:00 p.m. Eastern Time (ET) January 8, 2014. Sweepstakes ends 4:59 p.m. ET January 15, 2014. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.

Michael Stanley is the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. Sears was born in Johannesburg, grew up in Cape Town and Nairobi, and teaches at the University of the Witwatersrand. Trollip was also born in Johannesburg and has been on the faculty of the universities of Illinois, Minnesota, and North Dakota, and at Capella University. He divides his time between Knysna, South Africa, and Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
Betty Woodrum
1. BLW
This sounds great~thank you for the contest!
kent w. smith
2. bodacious
I like stories where I can learn something new about a place I have never been. Thank you.
Albert Tucher
3. Al Tucher
I remember enjoying James McClure and Wessel Ebersohn and have been meaning to go back to them. I also remember arguing about McClure witha literary snob of the type he dismisses.
tom combs
4. Minnesota
As an American living in Minnesota I was lucky to discover S. African authors many years ago. Fascinating settings, multi-faceted culture(s) and societies undergoing conflict-laden change provide rich dramatic soil.
Deon Meyer, Michael Stanley, Roger Smith and others mentioned till that soil brilliantly in their novels. Tremendously enjoyable reading.
Sally Schmidt
5. bigcootie
Thanks for more books for my TBR. I have read The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency for years and enjoy not only the story and characters but the look into a place I am unfamiliar with. It's the same with the Nordic Noir and stories set in Ireland, for example. Gives me the opportunity to experience not only the landscape of somewhere else but to learn a little about the people and their way of life and the politics. Often a novel does a better job of explaining just how it is to live there than the news articles.
Betty Breier
6. BLB
Deon Meyer is one of my favorite authors. I've also discovered the dark, but wonderful, Roger Smith and would like to explore more African crime fiction.
Deb Philippon
7. DebP
I really like Scandinavian noir, and I'd love to sample crime fiction from other parts of the world. There's such a diverse world out there.
Pete Weston
8. bluesbro74
Sounds extremely interesting, thanks for the chance and ideas for my TBR list.
9. Linoue
I have read a few and am always willing to discover new authors, new mysteries
Katherine Stukel
11. ckdexterhaven
One of the things I love best about reading is being about to go to places that I might not otherwise ever visit.
Nancy Marcho
12. nmarcho
Haven't yet read any South African crime fiction but would like to
Stephen Bristow
13. Vanesmantha
I work with a woman form South Africa...and I love the accent! I'll hear it on every page I read!
Thanks for the chance!
Janice Santillo
14. themommazie
sounds interesting. I like reading books in settings outside the US
20. richbart
i'd love it
Tricia Andrews
21. Tricia316
I love reading fun crime fiction set in places on my Bucket List. I will get to South Africa one of these years!
22. Shannon Baas
I would like this.
Sandy Klocinski
24. SKlocinski
Thanks to the duo, Michael Stanley for consistently good reads.
Barbara Lima
25. barblima
I have an interest in South Africa, I would love to read the book!
Julie Link
26. euchre35
This sounds like a fantastic read- thank you for the opportunity to win
30. Tricia
Seems like a good read!
Susan Pertierra
31. orchidlady01
I like Wilbur Smith novels and would be interested to read crime fiction from other South African authors. Sign me up!
Patrick Murphy
32. Ditch
I like reading books set in different locations. They can give us a great sense of place.
Marisa Young
33. Risa
Enjoy Michael Stanley's books and recommend to all who have not tried them.
Laurence Coven
35. Holmes
Considering the buzz around Stanley and his new book, looking forward to reading it very muchl
Laurence Coven
36. Holmes
My handcuffs are red even though I signed in. And as I look at the list everybody's handcuffs are red. Anybody have a clue about this?
Kelley Tackett
37. tackettfamilyky
I love Precious Ramotswe! Especially love listening to that series on audiobook.
Martha Gifford
39. seeword
I'd like to read this, please enter my name in the drawing.
jayne Wessels
40. jisaw
Great new reads. Thanks, Criminal Element!
Brenda Elsner
41. brat52101
Sounds great!!! Thanks for the chance to win!!
Lori Provenzano
42. Mountainesque
Very familiar with Alexander McCall Smith's "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" and subsequent books in this series, but not so much with the other writers featured. I'll have to correct this. These books all sound very compelling.
Heather Martin
43. CrystalMirror
One of the reasons authors transend their culture and country, is they are able to set univeral characters in a setting that may be differant then the reader's own. Hopefully, we learn something along the way. Making writng too politcal can ruin a good "story." You have to know your genre and audience. It is why Smith is so popular, and why other S. African (and other nationalist) authors have failed to resonate.
Andra Dalton
44. andra77
Love a good, gritty mystery!!! What a wonderful selection of new authors & books that I've never had the chance to read yet, can't wait to get ahold of these!!! Thanks for the opportunity to win & good luck to all who enter!!!:)
45. Imbubbasmom
Oh, I am definitely going to check these authors out. Thanks for the post!
Wilifred Alire
46. walire
Looking forward to this book, thank you for the contest.
Vernon Luckert
50. vl4095
Would love to win and read this novel. Have always enjoyed the novels by Wilber Smith, and would love to travel to South Africa some day.
Chris Noe
51. ezmerelda
Sounds like a good read. You guys are great about introducing me to intriguing new books. Thanks.
Janice Milliken
52. msjiva
Armchair travel is so convenient and all the more enjoyable if it includes a fictional crime or two!
Cindy Hipolito
53. mysuccess
Thank you for the book giveaway of 'Deadly Harvest' by Michael Stanley. I read a short summary of the story and it is definitely a must read. A mystery of missing young girls and rumors of witchdoctors or worse. Definitely will be an exciting read.
Michael Carter
55. rubydog
This really sounds interesting.
Yes, please enter me in this sweepstakes.
Beth Talmage
57. wordygirl
Thank you for the chance to discover another fascinating author.
Sabine Blanch
58. Schlauberger
Sounds like a good read, thank you for the chance!
charles j hauser jr
59. admiral
Have only read the Agatha Christie books with the African themes. Will look into the ones mentioned above as they seem quite good. Thanks for the heads up on them
61. TXCharley
Every time I read this blog I add to my TBR list!! It is getting huge and I am gonna have to live to 100, but that's if I don't add anything more.....
Carol Gowett
62. clynsg
I rarely pay much attention to the nationality of an author, unless there has been a rather awkward translation into English, which most often certainly isn't the fault of the author! The most common reason I notice it at all is when there is something that is definitely culturally different from my norm--then I will often do a little investigating to find out more.
Jason Steinmetz
68. steinmetz42
I love mysteries and would like to read this
71. Tim H. Moss
Good deal, count me in!
Jim Belcher
74. librarypops
The stories from Scandinavia and other northern climes left me cold so I am ready to try the warmer and hopefully hotter Southern Africa stories.
75. Renee Y S
Oh, there are so many possible stories to be told from Africa and it's exciting to find suspense and thrillers set in Africa!
Barbara Miller
77. barbara0101
I love to read books set in a similar but different area .
Sherry Schwabacher
79. sherrykaraoke
Thanks for the reminder of James McClure's great South African police procedurals. Putting them on my TBR lists.
Karen Hester
80. rosalba
Thanks for introducing these authors to me.
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