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.
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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.