In this extract from the book Life is a Thriller – Investigating African Crime Fiction, edited by Anja Oed and Christine Matzke, and published by Rudiger Koppe Verlag, Geoffrey V. Davis takes a look at Deon Meyer’s crime fiction.
‘Old loyalties and new aspirations’:
the post-apartheid crime fiction of Deon Meyer
Geoffrey V. Davis
In the world of South African crime fiction Deon Meyer has few predecessors. There are good reasons for this. In the South Africa of apartheid, as Meyer (Groenewald 2007) himself has pointed out, “you could not really have police crime thrillers […]. It is very difficult to have a cop as a hero if he works for an evil regime. You don’t tend to find crime thrillers in any community where a ‘non-democratic’ situation prevails”. No policeman, white or black, who worked for the apartheid regime was likely to elicit the reader’s empathy. Quite the opposite, in fact. More often than not, literary representations of the police would either portray the police, and particularly members of the Security Branch, as brutal agents of an oppressive regime, as for example in André Brink’s Dry White Season (1979), or, where the policeman was black, they would focus on his struggle to confront criticism from the younger generation for allowing himself to be co-opted by the regime rather than working against it, on his vain attempt to justify actions regarded by his own community as betrayal, and on his wrestling with his conscience, as for example in Percy Mtwa’s play Bopha! (1986).
Meyer’s point notwithstanding, there were some exceptions. One writer who applied himself to detective fiction during the years of apartheid was Wessel Ebersohn. His decidedly anti-apartheid crime novels are set firmly within the highly significant period of 1976–1990, that is from the Soweto uprising through the various States of Emergency imposed from the mid-1980s to the end of the apartheid era. To a considerable extent the novels chart the demise of the apartheid system, revealing the moral perversities attendant on the process, vilifying the ideological lunacies of right-wing Afrikaner politics and analysing the fears and anxieties which approaching social transition generated in white, especially Afrikaner, society. In Ebersohn’s fiction – A Lonely Place to Die (1979), Divide the Night (1981) and Closed Circle (1990) – apartheid itself determines the criminal environment, the criminals are not infrequently the police, more especially the Special Branch, and the genre of detective fiction is put into service as a political analysis of “the national state of mind” (Ebersohn 1990: 216). Ebersohn’s protagonist, Yudel Gordon, is neither policeman nor detective, but rather a Pretoria-based, Jewish psychologist working for the Department of Prisons, well-versed in the intricacies of the criminal mind and, although sometimes initially perceived by black people as an agent of the system, entirely sympathetic to their plight. His legitimacy in the eyes of those whose cause he defends – and in those of the reader – is demonstrated through the manner in which he contrives to distance himself from a system he loathes while remaining committed to a country he loves.
A no less critical writer who specialised in crime fiction during the apartheid period was James McClure, who left the country for Britain in 1965. Apart from their primary interest as detective fiction, McClure’s novels – among them The Steam Pig (1971), The Caterpillar Cop (1972), Gooseberry Fool (1974), The Sunday Hangman (1977) and The Song Dog (1991) – constitute a well-observed, detailed and recognisable portrait of South Africa, whereby his experience in journalism serves him extremely well. He views with sympathy the world of Africans whose lives have been so completely disrupted by the whites. The African poor inhabit the margins of all his novels and McClure finds memorable images to direct the reader’s attention to their deprivation. Set recognisably in the 1960s and early 1970s at the height of the apartheid period his novels describe the daily workings of the apartheid system. In so doing they reveal much about the ideology of racism and the psychology of those who practise it. McClure’s memorable pair of detectives, Lieutenant Kramer and Sergeant Zondi, are Afrikaner and Zulu respectively and the relationship between them is at the core of what McClure has to say about South Africa. And like the works of his contemporary Ebersohn, his books have much to tell us about the possibilities of the genre.
In the post-apartheid period there have been many new developments in South African literature. Older writers, freed of the constraints of the apartheid era, are branching out in new directions, while numerous new writers have come to the fore. It is perhaps not surprising that a number of them are exploring internationally popular genres such as crime fiction or the thriller. Among them are: Richard Kunzman, Angela Makholwa, Mike Nicol and Margie Orford. Nicol, who offers a particularly interesting example since, after a distinguished career, he has set himself some challenging new priorities by embarking on hardboiled crime fiction in the American mode, remarked recently that post-apartheid South African crime fiction “is in its infancy […] we are a long way off creating a market for ourselves in, say, the way the Australians have done with their crime fiction” (quoted in Orford 2007: 2).
True enough – but the process of creating that market does now seem to have begun. And one writer who is indubitably part of it is Deon Meyer. Meyer’s first novel was published in Afrikaans in the year that the country’s new non-racial, democratic government came to power, 1994, and since then he has been enjoying increasing success at home and overseas. As the Johannesburg Mail & Guardian has noted, “Meyer’s major success has been in breaking through to the international market” (Groenewald 2007). By now there is abundant confirmation of this: his work is being translated into many other languages, thirteen to date; Heart of the Hunter, Dead at Daybreak and Blood Safari have all been published in the United States; and he is winning prestigious literary prizes for crime fiction overseas, in France and Germany for instance.
He has also garnered some very flattering reviews in the overseas press, where he has been compared with major authors of thrillers such as John Le Carré. The London Times reviewing Devil’s Peak describes its author as “one of the sharpest and most perceptive thriller writers around” and goes on to compare his depiction of Cape Town with the Los Angeles of Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler (Millar 2007). Praise indeed. (The same critic also invites us to compare Meyer’s novels with a good bottle of Cape red wine!) Matthew Lewin (2009), reviewing Blood Safari for The Guardian, thinks that Meyer is “far and away the best crime writer in South Africa”, finds the novel “as exciting as any reader of thrillers has a right to demand” and credits his writing with being “full of insight into the problems of South Africa”.
Deon Meyer is unusual for at least two reasons. Firstly, he is one of the few Afrikaans writers – apart perhaps from André Brink and Antjie Krog – who are becoming well known outside South Africa. Secondly, the novels he writes in Afrikaans are thrillers and, as he has himself asserted, “There has never been a culture in Afrikaans of thriller writing.” That is reason enough for him to wish to “develop a truly African model of the genre” (Nicol and Meyer 2006), which is a rather unexpected, if increasingly successful direction for post-apartheid literature to be moving in.
Meyer is at a certain disadvantage, writing as he does in a minority language and one not spoken outside its country of origin. Yet he is adamant in his commitment to his language. He claims that “the Afrikaans versions [of his books] will always have the best context and colloquialisms” (Groenewald 2007) and listening to him reading passages from his work in the original Afrikaans even those of us only marginally familiar with the language can gain some sense of his creative facility in his mother tongue. Most of us will, of course, be unable to assess what might have been lost in the translations from the Afrikaans, although K.L. Seegers’ versions often read remarkably well in English. Perhaps we should take on trust the judgement of the – evidently South African – reviewer of Devil’s Peak for the London Guardian, who, putting on record his own changed view of Afrikaans post-apartheid as no longer a language which had been “force-fed” him at school but as one which now has “real depth and sophistication”, attests to the excellence of the translation and asserts that one can “at times hear the flow of the original Afrikaans” (Lewin 2007).
For the reader who knows South Africa and especially the Western Cape and the Lowveld well, Meyer’s novels with their well-chosen locations and detailed descriptions of place offer the constant pleasure of recognition. And indeed, one does mostly know where one is – at the Waterfront in Cape Town, in a much patronised Long St. Café or in one’s favourite Indian restaurant in Church Street Mall. Dead before Dying is set entirely around the Cape; Heart of the Hunter is again set in the Western Cape, partly in the township of Gugulethu, before the chase which forms the core of the action draws the reader off across the country north to Botswana; Devil’s Peak, as the title implies, is once again set in the Cape Town area, but also further afield in the Northern Cape and the Free State (the actual Devil’s Peak is the setting for only one short scene). Blood Safari begins in an upper-class residence overlooking the Old Harbour of Hermanus on the Indian Ocean coast just above Cape Town, moves to Loxton, the very ordinary spot in the Karoo where the male protagonist has chosen to isolate himself, and then takes us up to the game parks of the Lowveld in the Limpopo Province of north-eastern South Africa on the edge of the Kruger Park.
Although Meyer’s novels are thrillers first and foremost, they do develop credible characters with real psychological depth. In all the books the protagonists are flawed characters struggling with their personal lives. Throughout Dead before Dying Mat Joubert is attempting to come to terms with the death two years earlier of his wife, his memories of her repeatedly plunging him into deep depression. In the same novel as well as in Devil’s Peak Benny Griessel, thrown out by his wife after seventeen years of marriage and given six months to dry out, tries to overcome his alcoholism. In Heart of the Hunter and Devil’s Peak Thobela Mpayipheli suffers the loss of his partner Miriam and his son Pakamile respectively, and his whole life is thrown off course. In Blood Safari the bodyguard Lemmer seeks to escape his past and to suppress his propensity to violence by settling in a remote corner of the Karoo. Their “rebirth”, as Dead before Dying has it (DBD 5), takes various forms.
Detective Sergeant Joubert first has to contend with the problem of how to meet his new boss’s stipulations regarding physical fitness: he is over-weight, eats too much, drinks to excess, and when he finally does convince himself that he should take up sport and reluctantly goes swimming, he manages no more than two lengths before he is out-of-breath. His only sporadically successful attempts to follow a diet and lead a healthy life form a minor comic theme in this novel – especially if the reader has similar problems!
Joubert also attempts to reawaken his sexual instinct, on occasion with disastrously comic effect, as when he succumbs to the charms of his neighbour’s precocious daughter, only to be thwarted in his purpose by the arrival of his drunk and incapable colleague, Benny. As an attractive man – and what fictional detective is not? – Joubert is often the target of attempts at seduction (amusingly even by the professor of Criminology at the University of Stellenbosch). His reinvigorated interest in the opposite sex becomes a measure of his rehabilitation and when at the end of the novel, he goes off to the opera with the widow of one of the serial killer’s victims, it is clear that his healing process has been successfully completed.
Benny Griessel has alcohol to contend with and he has gone a long way down the road toward losing his job. As his superior officer Joubert remarks: “I have never seen a person so completely fuck-up his life without any help from outside” (DP 42) – but nevertheless he still believes in him and gives him moral support, since, as both recognise, “they had too much history” (DP 33). Likewise his children, to whom he is greatly attached and who he feels he is in the process of losing when his wife throws him out, retain their faith in him (DP 262); it is they who sustain him when he doubts whether his wife actually does want him back. Benny’s vision was always to become a policeman (DP 221) and in spite of his alcohol problem he certainly is a dedicated officer. But when he explains to Thobela why it is irresponsible to take the law into one’s own hands (DP 364), only to do precisely that himself when he executes the drug traders identified by his daughter as those who raped her (DP 394), the reader may wonder whether the characterisation does not sacrifice consistency to the constraints of providing a neat ending. Or perhaps Meyer was seeking to show there is violence in everyone and sometimes it will out.
Thobela has a strong moral code and sense of loyalty to his former comrades in the struggle. He knows none of them would ever sell out (HH 43), which is why he agrees to act on behalf of one of them: “My debt to Johnny Kleintjes is a man’s debt, a debt of honour”, he says; he has to “choose the right way”, “do the right thing”, even if it is at great personal risk and involves a temporary – and in the event fateful – separation from his beloved family (HH 32-33). In Heart of the Hunter he becomes a man for whom family – which means Miriam and Pakamile – has come to mean everything. It is his family which enables him to put his former life behind him and to change (HH 43). His goodness is constantly emphasised. He is the model of a reliable employee, never absent, always punctual. To the surprise of his employer, when he ‘steals’ a BMW motorcycle he leaves a note of apology; he even promises to pay for any wear and tear (HH 74); and at the end of the novel he actually purchases the machine.
In the later novel, Devil’s Peak, however, he has to cope with the feelings of guilt and self-reproach arising from the tragic deaths of his wife and son within a month of one another (HH 277; DP 7). With both of them gone, he has nothing left in his life; all his hopes for the future – a new life together settling down on the farm he has purchased at his home place far from the Cape – are as nought (DP 31). And so he decides to take up arms against injustice, since in his view it is the country that has failed him. He thus becomes a vigilante, killing those who abuse children but escape punishment. For him this becomes a meaningful way of dealing with his grief, “a way forward” as he puts it (DP 69). He even regards it as something commensurate with his earlier involvement in the liberation struggle, as “his vocation” (DP 80). In spite of his activity as a vigilante – and on one occasion he does eliminate the wrong person (DP 186, 243) – he is portrayed throughout as an essentially good man, as evinced for instance in his concern to feed street children (DP 162-164).
The personal history of Lemmer, the bodyguard of Blood Safari, is revealed through the rather unusual device of having him narrate his life story to his client after she has been shot and is lying in a hospital bed comatose and oblivious to what he is saying. It is almost as if he were unburdening himself of a confession. Lemmer, we learn, is the child of a broken home in Seapoint, his father a violent drunkard given to beating his son, his mother frustrated and brazenly unfaithful until their inevitable separation. Lemmer feels he has inherited his father’s temper, has trouble suppressing a violent streak in himself and joins a police karate club in an effort to control his impulses. From there he is recruited as a bodyguard, in which capacity he protects a series of government ministers, white and black successively, until he is himself replaced in terms of black empowerment. Provoked into a fight by a gang of youths, one of whom dies in the course of it, he is given an undeserved six-year prison sentence for manslaughter. Out on parole after having served four years, he tries to deal with his problems living a quiet, secluded life as part of the community in the small Karoo town of Loxton, a process which is interrupted when the action of the novel opens.
Lemmer is an interesting creation. The abuses of his childhood have left him with an identity crisis, a powerful desire to belong to the kind of community he has never known and an aversion to the rich, especially the Afrikaner rich. Not surprisingly in his circumstances he is greatly impressed when the National Party cabinet minister to whom he is bodyguard expounds – somewhat untypically! – the African philosophy of ubuntu to him, which he is convinced the white man must espouse if he is to survive on the continent. At the same time, Lemmer has adopted a number of precepts, which he amusingly formulates as “Lemmer’s Laws” and which he tries not without difficulty to abide by: “Lemmer’s First Law: Don’t get involved […] Lemmer’s Second Law: Trust nobody” (BS 12). When confronted by his new charge, the attractive Emma LeRoux, he predictably fails to observe the first of these and, having become involved but still unsure of whether she is lying or not, he has a good deal of trouble observing the second too. Lemmer’s efforts to reconstruct his life, interrupted by the commission to protect Emma and the sequence of violent events that follow from it, are resumed at the end of the book, when he is seen jogging through Loxton, greeted by various members of the local populace, who are now the community he has been seeking. When he notices Emma’s car parked outside his house in the distance, he begins, in the final words of the novel, “to run faster” (BS 372).
Since Meyer’s novels are set firmly in the period of transition from the old to the new South Africa, between the apartheid and post-apartheid societies, the pasts of the characters assume particular importance. They all have roots in the earlier apartheid society. Some were inside the country; some were in exile; some participated in the liberation struggle inside and outside the country.
Just how important the legacy of the past is may be illustrated from Heart of the Hunter, for here many of the major characters have participated in the liberation struggle in various capacities and have now returned home. Janina, for instance, has an almost typical history: rural upbringing, brilliant career at university, first political activity there, then membership of the ANC underground, but as a white and an Afrikaner she has risen only slowly through the ranks of the party, feels she has little to show for “a decade in the Struggle” (HH 52) and is frustrated at her lack of progress. This frustration contributes largely to her betrayal. Johnny Kleintjes has been in the ANC’s intelligence services abroad and like Thobela has received military training in East Germany; Mazibuko, a policeman of quite vicious brutality, is the son of one who ‘sold out’ under torture and revealed the names of his comrades. And then there is Thobela himself, who after the 1976 Soweto uprising went off to join the struggle at the age of seventeen, a former operative in Europe and America, East-German trained and loaned out to work as an assassin because he was such a good marksman, later using an assegai purchased in an Amsterdam curio shop to carry out assassinations at close quarters in the traditional manner. He is deeply aware of his Xhosa past and beholden to his ancestors right back to Phalo and Magona. It is in Heart of the Hunter that his past catches up with him and begins the destruction of that future. When we first meet him in Heart of the Hunter he is working as a humble cleaner and general ‘dogsbody’ in a garage. In Devil’s Peak he is still unable to find work (DP 120).
In South Africa the period of transition from the old to a new society has been marked by major changes and these figure prominently in the fictions. The problems of post-apartheid integration play a role here, since ANC cadres are being integrated into institutions of the former apartheid state and people have to cope with these changes, whereby there is no longer a struggle between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and former enemies are no longer enemies.
Some of the changes have been implemented to facilitate black empowerment, for instance in the staffing of police and intelligence organisations. Thus, in Heart of the Hunter the director of the intelligence services is now a Zulu. In Blood Safari the inspector Lemmer has to contend with is the black officer, Jack Phatudi, who also happens to be the nephew of a Sibashwa chief. In Dead before Dying a new black Minister of Law and Order is in charge and an ANC member formerly active in the struggle has been appointed Commanding Officer of the Murder and Robbery squad at Bellville South. He has worked at Scotland Yard, is deeply unpopular and is an advocate of change, which he knows all his officers resist. He attempts to transform the service by imposing new management principles, insisting that his men become physically fit and undergo psychological tests. He warns them, too, that their jobs are on the line because “there are people in disadvantaged communities who have to be uplifted” (DBD 22) – affirmative action is the order of the day. Commenting on the transition in Devil’s Peak, Benny Griessel remarks that he and Mat Joubert remain “the last two old soldiers who had survived the antics of the old regime and affirmative action of the new area” (DP 239) – and in that common experience lies the source of their friendship and solidarity.
Since Meyer is writing out of a country which is passing through such significant times it is perhaps to be expected that one of the more interesting facets of his fiction is the manner in which he portrays the New South Africa. His work demonstrates how the writer of thrillers need not eschew the opportunity to raise important social issues. Throughout all the novels he thus displays an awareness of the legacy of the old society and an understanding of the problems and benefits of the new social order. Indeed, he often exhibits a wry perspective on the relationship between the two, as when in the detective’s office of Devil’s Peak the portrait of the then president Thabo Mbeki is seen hanging askew in a cheap frame – no doubt symbolically; or as when in Dead before Dying the new black commanding officer points out that “Murder and Robbery were officially part of the New South Africa” (DBD 13).
In Meyer’s New South Africa local and international drug traders are operating on the Cape Flats; Mitchell’s Plain has become a “battlefield” (DB 71). In a country where some believe that raping a child can cure AIDS – as in the case of Envers Davids in Devil’s Peak – there has been a dramatic increase in crimes against children, which the state is apparently unable to stem. When, in that novel, Thobela delves into on-line newspaper archives, he discovers “a never-ending stream of crimes against children. Murder, rape, mistreatment, harassment, assault, abuse” (DP 97). Thobela is aware, too, that “the contrasts in the country were too great” (DP 39), that the root causes of crime are inequality and poverty, as in the case of those who rob the petrol station in Devil’s Peak who have grown up in the impoverished former ‘homeland’ of the Transkei.
Blood Safari, the most recent of Meyer’s thrillers available at the time of writing, is set six years into the New South Africa and it too paints a rich portrait of the country. It is set, as we have seen, in the far north-east of the country and this, as Frank Wolhuter, the manager of the Mogale Rehabilitation Centre, cannot forbear to remark, is “another world from Cape Town […] This is still the old South Africa. No, that’s not entirely true. The mindset of everyone, black and white, is in the old regime, but all the problems are New South Africa. Racism and progress, hate and cooperation, suspicion and reconciliation … those things do not lie well together” (BS 72). In other words, it is an area where fundamental conflicts of interest and attitudes are still to be found – and many of these will come into play in the novel.
This novel, as we shall see too, focuses on a rather different set of social and political problems than hitherto in Meyer’s œuvre. Crime, of course, remains ubiquitous and its consequences are pervasive. Rich whites live behind high walls, security gates, burglar bars and in reach of panic buttons. They employ the services of security companies whose ‘immediate armed response’ notices adorn their properties. In such conditions it is not surprising that outfits such as Body Armour, for which Lemmer works, make rich pickings protecting diplomats, foreigners and the wealthy. It is a society, which subscribes to values for which Lemmer has nothing but scorn: not for him “the new consumerism” and the “new urban aggression” (BS 182). In the course of his long talk to the comatose Emma he delivers himself of a castigating critique of white and black alike – the whites, who “complained about affirmative action and corruption, but … forget that they had benefited from the same for fifty or sixty years” and “the blacks [who] blamed apartheid for everything” (BS 182). Not surprisingly, the rags to riches story that is Emma’s own family history – her father had achieved great wealth contracted to supply gears to ARMSCOR – causes Lemmer to wonder “whether she ever thought about the source of her wealth, built on the foundation of apartheid and international sanctions” (BS 49). To him her wealth is a constant source of suspicion.
The South Africa we encounter in Blood Safari is a country of game reserves, not only of the vast and famous Kruger National Park, but also of smaller, privately run parks like the Mogale Rehabilitation Centre, established primarily to preserve the Cape vulture (BS 61-66), the Songimvelo Game Reserve run by the multi-millionaire Stefan Moller (to which the public are not admitted) (BS 91-97), and innumerable lesser enterprises such as the Molomahlapi Private Game Reserve, and the Makutswi Wildlife Ranch, the Mohlolobe Private Game Reserve which basically provide what Lemmer dismisses as “Africa for the rich American tourist, eco-friendly five-star luxury” (BS 41). Lemmer is characteristically unimpressed with such places: initially at least he views game reserves with sceptical irony: “In my humble opinion”, he concludes, “Mogale Rehabilitation Centre was an ecological rearrangement of the deckchairs on the Titanic, like most green initiatives” (BS 81), but later he will have cause to modify that opinion.
Two issues are of particular concern in this remote rural setting: land claims and ecology. And as Meyer shows us they are not only interlocked but frequently in conflict. As Lemmer and Emma first discover from Inspector Phatudi, there is a fundamental conflict of interest in the area, the black people believing that “the whites care only for the animals [but they] belong to the people. They are not the animals of the whites” (BS 58). In addition the local communities have land claims pending. These give rise to much contention: Wolhuter alleges that land restored to black occupation is land wasted since it would only be sold off to white property developers and to return it would thus eventually mean the end of the Kruger Park (BS 73-74); Phatudi justifies the claims in terms of the historical dispossession of his people, blames the whites for exterminating the wildlife in the first place and thinks the problem can only be solved when jobs are created for his people and their poverty ended.
Manifestly the land claims question is related to that of environmental protection and wildlife preservation. Remarkably for a thriller, Meyer allocates considerable space to the articulation of different points of view on ecological questions. First there is Donnie Branca’s lecture on why such unprepossessing creatures as vultures should be preserved (BS 62-66). Then there is Stef Moller’s disquisition on the history of mankind, concluding with his statement that “the only way to keep a proper ecological balance today is to keep the people out” (BS 95) and his expressed conviction that the game reserves are failing under the pressure of tourism. And finally we have the “eco-terrorists” threatening the local farmers for damaging the environment, intimidating the communities who claim land by poisoning their dogs and shooting at them (BS 218), and as Donnie later reveals, generally trying to prevent environmental degradation by any means possible, legal or otherwise (BS 278). In many ways Blood Safari represents an interesting new departure for Meyer. It is indeed refreshing to find him incorporating issues of such ecological interest into a thriller, issues which are of course of importance far beyond the borders of South Africa.
Before concluding, it is perhaps appropriate to point to two further aspects of Meyer’s work which contribute greatly to its success with readers. The first is “the intricacy of his plotting” (Lewin 2007) on which he has been much complimented. Two novels may serve briefly as examples for the complexity of his plots.
Dead before Dying constructs a very involved plot about a serial killer whose victims appear to have no connection at all with one another; the mystery is thus inordinately difficult to unravel. It also demonstrates Meyer’s skill in placing red herrings before the reader: the fact that the killer uses a Mauser provokes all manner of speculation, not least that there might be an Afrikaner nationalist element at work since such weapons were used in the Anglo-Boer War (DBD 265). Then there is the sub-plot concerning a series of curious bank robberies committed by an inordinately polite robber who, as it turns out, is a make-up artist with a toy gun who only wants to relieve the bank of the exact amount he is convinced it has cheated him out of (DBD 363). It thus has nothing at all to do with the serial killings of the main plot – but it does supply a degree of comic relief.
The second example is Devil’s Peak, which develops parallel narratives: that of the vigilante who kills those who abuse children and that which Christine tells to a clergyman in a rural Sotho-speaking area of the Free State, her “great fraud” (DP 35) as it is described early on in the novel without the reader discovering what this is until the end of the novel. As it turns out, both narratives are concerned with the same issue: the protection of children from violence.
Secondly, it is remarkable how well researched Meyer’s novels prove to be. Here again, he has been much complimented on this. Writing in the Mail & Guardian Yolandi Groenewald (2007) praised him for his “meticulous research” in the case of Devil’s Peak, a novel which led him to interview sex workers, police psychologists and the owners of Cape Town curio shops, among others. Heart of the Hunter profited greatly from his impromptu consultations with “a never-ending list of Xhosa, Zulu, Tswana, Ndebele and Sotho shoeshine people, businessmen, taxi drivers, porters and co-passengers on business flights between Cape Town and Johannesburg” (HH 420) not to mention experts on the use of the assegai, representatives of BMW and ex-missionaries (HH 421)! This novel is particularly remarkable for the sensitivity with which Meyer portrays Thobela’s African heritage and the degree of attention he pays to the correct use of African languages.
In terms of the research which has gone into the writing of his novels, Blood Safari is probably unique in Meyer’s work. For as the “Acknowledgements” make clear, this is a book which grew not only out of a considerable amount of background reading but also out of what the author had been able to learn on several visits to the Moholoholo Animal Research Centre in Limpopo Province. As he puts it, “every time I listened to the presentations by Brian Jones and his personnel, I was inspired by their dedication, passion and sacrifice, especially the incredible work they do with vultures” (BS 373). It is, thus, to their commitment and to the author’s admiration for their work that we ultimately owe a fine and quite unusual thriller.
Deon Meyer has proved himself a master of the thriller. He knows how to pace the action, create suspense, and weave an intricate plot. He populates his novels with characters who have credibility and depth. He recognises the importance of the legacy of a past rooted in apartheid while remaining committed to a non-racial future. He addresses issues of importance in the New South Africa whether these concern drugs, crime, child abuse, environmental protection or the preservation of wildlife. And of course, not the least of his talents is that he writes books that are vastly entertaining page-turners. Single-handed, he has created a new literary genre for himself – the Afrikaans thriller.
Brink, André, 1979: A Dry White Season. London: W.H. Allen.
Davis, Geoffrey, 2006: “Political loyalties and the intricacies of the criminal mind: the detective fiction of Wessel Ebersohn”. In: Christine Matzke and Susanne Mühleisen (eds.): Postcolonial Postmortems. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 181-199.
Ebersohn, Wessel, 1980: A Lonely Place to Die. New York: Vintage.
Ebersohn, Wessel, 1983: Divide the Night. Feltham, Middlesex: Hamlyn.
Ebersohn, Wessel, 1990: Closed Circle. London: Gollancz.
Groenewald, Yolandi, 2007: “A thrill in every language”. Mail & Guardian, 10th August. <http://za.mg.co.za/article/2007-08-10-a-thrill-in-every-language> [22nd December 2007].
Lewin, Matthew, 2007: “Bring me my assegai”. The Guardian, 21st July. <http:// www.guardian.co.uk/books/2007/jul/21/crimebooks.featuresreviews> [22nd December 2007].
Lewin, Matthew, 2009: “Blood Safari”. The Guardian, 18th April. http://www. guardian.co.uk/books/2009/apr/18/blood-safari-deon-meyer-review. [9th August 2009].
McClure, James, 1971: The Steam Pig. London: Gollancz.
McClure, James, 1972: The Caterpillar Cop. London: Gollancz.
McClure, James, 1974: The Gooseberry Fool. London: Gollancz.
McClure, James, 1977: The Sunday Hangman. London: Macmillan.
McClure, James, 1991: The Song Dog. London: Faber and Faber.
Meyer, Deon, 1996: Feniks. Cape Town: Queillerie.
Meyer, Deon, 1999: Dead before Dying. English translation of Feniks. London: Hodder and Stoughton.
Meyer, Deon, 2000: Orion. Cape Town: Human and Rousseau.
Meyer, Deon, 2000: Dead at Daybreak. English translation of Orion. London: Hodder and Stoughton.
Meyer, Deon, 2002: Proteus. Cape Town: Human and Rousseau.
Meyer, Deon, 2003: Heart of the Hunter. English translation of Proteus. London: Hodder and Stoughton.
Meyer, Deon, 2005: Infanta. Cape Town: Human and Rousseau.
Meyer, Deon, 2007: Devil’s Peak. English translation of Infanta. London: Hodder and Stoughton.
Meyer, Deon, 2007: Onsigbaar. Cape Town: Human and Rousseau.
Meyer, Deon, 2008: Blood Safari. English translation of Onsigbaar. London: Hodder and Stoughton.
Millar, Peter, 2007. “Devil’s Peak” The Times, June 23rd. <http://entertainment. timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/fiction/article1971889.ece> [22nd December 2007].
Mtwa, Percy, 1986: “Bopha!” In: Duma Ndlovu (ed.): Woza Afrika! An Anthology of South African Plays. New York: George Braziller, 225-257.
Nicol, Mike and Deon Meyer, 2006: “ABSA Chain: Mike Nicol in conversation with Deon Meyer”. <http://www.litnet.co.za/cgi-bin/giga.cgi?cmd=cause_dir_news_ item&news_id=2427&cause_ id =1270> [22nd December 2007].
Orford, Margie, 2007. “Crime Wave on the Rise”. Mail & Guardian, 2nd-8th November, 8-9.
 Please note that this article was written before Meyer‘s novels Thirteen Hours (2009) and Trackers (2011) were published.
 I have discussed Ebersohn in another article (Davis 2006).
 This novel was banned in South Africa.
 In this paper the titles of Meyer’s novels will be abbreviated as follows: Dead Before Dying (DBD) [originally published in Afrikaans as Feniks (1996)]; Dead at Daybreak (DD) [originally published in Afrikaans as Orion (2000)]; Heart of the Hunter (HH) [originally published in Afrikaans as Proteus (2002)]; Devil’s Peak (DP) [originally published in Afrikaans as Infanta (2005)]; and Blood Safari (BS) [originally published in Afrikaans as Onsigbaar (2007)].
 The remark is somewhat ambiguous since he is referring to the police department which deals with Murder and Robbery.
In January 2008 the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany, held a crime fiction conference that focused on African krimis. The symposium was called “Murder by Magic”. The papers from the conference have now been published in a book called Life is a Thriller – Investigating African Crime Fiction, edited by Anja Oed and Christine Matzke, and published by Rudiger Koppe Verlag. Coming up over the next few weeks are three extracts from the book.
Anja Oed and Christine Matzke
In early 2008 (9th – 12th January) a group of writers, academics, journalists and publishers came together to participate in the 9th International Janheinz Jahn Symposium on African Literatures at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. The symposium was entitled “Beyond ‘Murder by Magic’” and aimed at ‘investigating’ African crime fiction in its broadest possible scope, and from a multiplicity of perspectives. The event brought together experts from three continents – Africa, Europe and North America – who together covered African crime fiction in nine languages: Afrikaans, English, Ewe, French, Northern Sotho, Portuguese, Swahili, Yorùbá, and Zulu. As far as we know, it was the first comparative symposium on African crime fiction, and it has already been recognised as such (Christian 2010: 298-290). Research into crime narratives in several of the countries, regions and texts presented in these papers is only just beginning; others have already been the subject matter of lively academic discussion, but are rarely acknowledged outside their regional and linguistic circles (such as the huge but firmly delimited field of Swahili Studies, for example). Unusual, perhaps, was also the configuration of gender, nationality, age and language among the symposium participants, and their academic affiliations. Delegates covered disciplines as varied as English literature, Romance literature, African literatures, African linguistics, theatre, sociology, cultural anthropology, and history; some combined creative and academic writing, publishing and public relations, diplomatic service and entrepreneurial enterprise. All of them were encouraged to approach African crime fiction from the vantage points of their own disciplinary positioning. Literary practitioners (writing in Afrikaans, English, Swahili, and Zulu) were an integral part of the conference dialogue; indeed they proved to be a constant source of information and inspiration, and challenged some of the preconceived ideas of those of us based in academia. It was a great pleasure for us to see all writers – Angela Makholwa, Meshack Masondo, Deon Meyer, and Ben R. Mtobwa – attend and actively join in the academic parts of the symposium. This proved to be immensely stimulating and contributed to the general atmosphere of intellectual camaraderie. None of us will soon forget Angela Makholwa’s impromptu delivery of a ‘mock academic paper’ – which was also a mock crime investigation – during the closing session of the symposium. It was the most appropriate ‘closing glee’ we could have wished for.
When we set out to make first plans for this symposium – sometime after the 8th Jahn Symposium on “Creative Writing in African Languages” in 2004 (Oed and Reuster-Jahn 2008) – a new wave of crime fiction had just started to emerge in the ‘new’ South Africa. Already in 1991 Eugene Schleh (1991: 37) had noted that “Africans are beginning to write detective/mystery fiction in rapidly growing numbers“. In a chapter co-written with Mary Lou Quinn (Schleh and Quinn 1991: 39) he observed that “[a]bout one-third of the novels published“ in popular English-language series aimed at an African market, such as Macmillan Pacesetters, “fall into the general category of crime fiction“. African crime fiction was therefore nothing entirely new, but critical investigation into this genre was still wanting. With Mysteries of Africa (1991), Schleh had made a commendable start by providing readers with a panorama of crime fiction set in Africa; few contributions in his collection, however, dealt with crime fiction written by African authors (however that may be understood), and mostly these were South African. The same holds for discussions of African literary works included in the increasing number of crime fiction publications in the area of Postcolonial Studies (see, for example, Christian 2001, Muponde and Primorac 2005, Matzke and Mühleisen 2006). While individual studies of East or West African crime narratives have long been available, they rarely participate in a comparative debate which transcends national, regional or linguistic boundaries.This was the kind of debate the symposium wanted to kick-start.
Of particular interest to us were the following questions: what distinguishes crime fiction by African authors from crime fiction from other parts of the world? How have African authors adapted, transformed, subverted and reinvented the genre and its sub-categories? Which issues are investigated in African narratives of detection and how do they tie in with the cultural and socio-political contexts from which they emerged? How does the use of a particular language shape the genre? Which audiences are addressed? And how are these texts marketed, distributed and received?
Five themes eventually emerged as central during the symposium: what makes African crime fiction ‘African’?; the importance of setting and location; publishing and translating; religion and spiritual elements; and narrative strategies and generic innovations. The essays collected here and our further remarks below should not be read as comprehensive and final ‘outcomes’, but as starting points for further investigation and reflection. We are looking forward to the spirit of this symposium being sustained in the collegial exchanges yet to come.
What makes African crime fiction ‘African’? Some general remarks
At an early stage during the symposium it became clear that a narrow concern with the specificities of African crime fiction, i.e. the search for ‘distinguishing features’ of African crime fiction, would in all likelihood not prove fruitful. Too diverse are thematic concerns and the modes in which they are mediated; too varied the narrative and linguistic strategies; too diverse the social, cultural and historical contexts which these works address or from which they emerge. While it did not seem possible to identify exactly what makes African crime fiction ‘African’ – and thus repeat the age-old discussion of ‘what is African literature’ (cf. Ngũgĩ 1986, see also Christine Matzke, this volume) – the interface of African literature and crime fiction proved valuable as a starting point for a comparative, interdisciplinary analysis. What African literature and crime fiction share at a most fundamental level is their emphasis on the ‘double’ function of literature. Many African authors have a strong sense of responsibility towards society, which, independent of the genre they choose, is reflected in their creative writing. Likewise, crime fiction has often been concerned with issues relating to the society at large. The idea of “murder with a message” (Gosselin 1999) thus seems to be one of the reasons why crime fiction exerts such a pull on contemporary African writers. This would also explain why the genre appears to absorb and appropriate current thematic concerns more immediately than others. More than any other genre in African literatures, crime fiction seems to effortlessly combine elements of entertainment and social commentary. Various speakers highlighted the link between social analysis and playful diversion. The works of the late, great Ben R. Mtobwa might serve as a brief example. Mtobwa not only successfully utilised the thriller and the police procedural over many decades, he also continued to comment on social and political ills in Tanzania where most of his novels are set (and where the majority of his readers live). Issues addressed range from corruption during the first multi-party election to the harsh realities of Tanzanian life in the new millennium. Mikhail D. Gromov (this volume) identifies the paradigm of ‘crime with a message’ as a leading trend in contemporary Tanzanian detective fiction and reads it as a general sign of the coming of age of Swahili literature. Uta Reuster-Jahn (this volume) confirms his view in her analysis of Tanzanian crime narratives which focus on the responsibility of the individual towards their community in the face of police corruption.
Setting and location: the local and the global
Most African narratives of detection are deeply steeped in the societies and cultures from which they emerge (see Geoffrey V. Davis on Deon Meyer, this volume); yet they defy simplistic ‘anthropological’ readings. ‘Tradition’ and ‘modernity’ often exist side by side in contemporary African crime fiction; rarely are they portrayed as diametrically opposed (see Anja Oed and Ranka Primorac, this volume). While a number of crime narratives, especially those written in indigenous languages, primarily target a local market, many texts go beyond a local setting and address issues of global relevance; often they are transnational (and even cosmopolitan) in character. A number of novels take up regional or international conflicts and then refer back to problems of specific nations, communities or governance. Linked to this is the move “from the individual to the social system as the subject of investigation” (Evans and White 2012: 139) which many crime narratives all over the world share. Increasingly, African crime fiction depicts the intricate connection and pitfalls of globalisation, i.e. the way hegemonic global organisations prey on African resources, thus establishing neo-colonial structures of exploitation and dependency (see Matthew J. Christensen on Tony Marinho, this volume). Frequently, a particular government or state apparatus is represented as complicit in the misuse of local assets. When order is eventually restored, it thus translates into the re-establishment of hegemonic power structures in collusion with global forces, rather than into justice for individuals suffering from human or environmental degradation on the ground. Ranka Primorac and Karola Hoffmann (both this volume) also demonstrate how fiction can transmit (in the Bakhtinian sense) dominant (i.e. official or ‘state’) nationalist discourses.
Publishing and translating African crime fiction
Throughout the symposium, aspects concerning the publication and translation of African crime fiction were discussed. During the opening reading, Ben Mtobwa related the story of his own publishing house established some two decades ago when he was unable to find a publisher for his own works (see interviews, this volume). Meshack Masondo primarily writes for the school book market in South Africa as the general reading public for Zulu literature is too small to be economically viable (see interview, this volume). Deon Meyer, on the other hand, increasingly writes for international audiences, though staying with contemporary South African topics (see Geoffrey V. Davis, this volume), while Angela Makholwa, who owns her own public relations company, addresses primarily a young urban South African readership (see interviews, this volume). Many external factors shape the production and publication of crime fiction on the African continent, but rarely are such issues addressed in literature and language studies, or any of the other disciplines represented at the symposium.
Religion and spiritual elements
One of the most contentious issues discussed during the symposium was the utilisation of religious or ‘supernatural’ elements in African crime fiction (see, for example, Manfred Loimeier, this volume). Annekie Joubert, for example, explained that early narratives in Northern Sotho used magic ritual as a disguise to uncover the perpetrator by very rational means; in other novels divination was shown to be part and parcel of modern police work. In F. Kwasi Fiawoo’s play Tɔkɔ Atɔ̃lia (1932), The Fifth Landing Stage (1943), on the other hand, ‘modern’ techniques are forgone for ‘traditional’ methods to expose crime and villainy (see James Gibbs, this volume). While the majority of delegates agreed that it was a particular characteristic of African crime fiction to portray the spiritual world not as ‘fictions of the imagination’, but as an essential aspect of life on the continent, a smaller number adamantly opposed the use of such elements in crime narratives from Africa. This group saw it as perpetuating colonial stereotypes of African ‘irrationality’ which would be in stark contrast to the ‘rational’ investigation portrayed by the genre. Crime fiction, in their view, was by definition ‘realist’ literature in which ‘supernatural’ elements had no place. While we did not come to an agreement in this respect, it was clear that despite its formulaic character, there can be no prescriptions for African crime fiction. Several scholars, such as Said Khamis and Francis Moto – both recognised authors in their own right – vehemently defended poetic licence and the freedom of the writer.
Narrative strategies and generic innovations in African crime fiction
Following the debate around spiritual elements, the question came up whether crime fiction inevitably had to follow a ‘realist’ narrative mode (see Said Khamis, this volume). Others drew a connection to early English crime narratives, such as the clue-puzzle which might have projected a supposed realism – as do many contemporary police procedurals (Scaggs 2005: 89) – but which were anything but ‘realistic’ in character. Instead, these stories often featured a ‘super-detective’ whose intellect, investigative skills and prowess surpassed the abilities of ordinary human beings (for a popular visual example see Matthias Krings, this volume).
The investigative figure was indeed central to many discussions. Numerous protagonists were identified, from police officers to the whole community, from lawyers and judges to special agents, from private eyes and sorcerers to the ‘been-to’ or African returnee (for the latter see Katja Meintel, this volume). Like crime writers all over the world, African authors like to play with the expectations of their readers. Instead of the super-agent behind the promising name of Jaime Bunda, you find a lazy incompetent office worker who nonetheless gets to the bottom (no pun intended!) of corruption and crime simply by being inept and clumsy (see Doris Wieser, this volume). In the works of Boubacar Boris Diop, the detective figure disappears completely and memory takes over the investigation (see Susanne Gehrmann, this volume). While ‘realist’ modes of writing are often employed, ‘magical realist’ elements are no less common, as is the playful utilisation of other genres. Particularly in women’s crime writing, a certain ‘genre-bending’ towards romance fiction was observed (see Alina N. Rinkanya, this volume). A number of the texts discussed in this volume are not necessarily ‘well-made’ specimens of genre fiction, but suggest the emergence of an aesthetic that needs to be studied further (Okome 2012). This not only holds true for texts in printed form, but increasingly also for web-based publications. Online sites for African pulp fiction are springing up and also need to be taken into consideration (see, for example, http://www.junglejim.org).
If the symposium had one effect, it was that our overall picture of African crime fiction had broadened by the time the event came to a close. New topics had been identified, well-known issues had been argued over; African crime fiction was clearly becoming part of the international crime fiction circuits. This collection of essays, then, is more than the sum of its parts. It represents a unique coming together of scholars and practitioners mentioned above, and of different texts, topics, styles, and methods. Contributions range from general national overviews to close readings of individual works; analyses include narratological, political, linguistic and cultural studies approaches. We hope that this book will help map a research agenda for some time to come.
Most chapters in this collection were initially read as papers at the 9th International Janheinz Jahn Symposium; a minority was submitted on invitation. For ease of access, contributions are loosely grouped into regional clusters – Southern Africa, West and Central Africa, and East Africa – though there are, unavoidably, occasional overlaps. Readers will easily locate thematic cross-overs beyond the regional divide. The academic chapters are followed by a select bibliography of African and African-diasporic crime fiction in English, and interviews with the writers who participated in the symposium. Finally, we have included the conference programme for those interested in the shape of the original pioneering event.
We would like to express our thanks to the Volkswagen Foundation for funding the 9th International Janheinz Jahn Symposium, thus enabling us to invite international experts from all over the world. We are indebted to the Department of Anthropology and African Studies and the Jahn Library for African Literatures at Mainz for hosting the event and for financially supporting the publication of this volume. Many thanks to Kathrin Tiewa for the language editing and to Ranka Primorac for her valuable suggestions on an earlier draft of this introduction. Finally a big thank you to all our contributors for bearing with us during the long gestation period of this book.
Christian, Ed (ed.), 2001: The Post-Colonial Detective. Houndmills: Palgrave.
Christian, Ed, 2010: “Ethnic postcolonial crime and detection (Anglophone)”. In: Charles J. Rzepka and Lee Horsley (eds.): A Companion to Crime Fiction. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 283-295.
Evans, Lucy and Mandala White, 2012: “Crime narratives and global politics”. The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 47, 2, 139-143.
Ezenwa-Ohaeto, 1995: “Critical realism and the thriller tradition in Nigerian fiction: Williams, Nwanko and Uzoatu”. Obisidan II 10, 1-2, 204-217.
Gosselin, Adrienne Johnson, 1999: “Multicultural fiction: murder with a message”. In: Adrienne Johnson Gosselin (ed.): Multicultural Detective Fiction: Murder from the ‘Other’ Side. New York: Garland, 3-14.
Joubert, Annekie, 2010: “Story-telling strategies employed in three Northern Sotho detective short stories”. South African Journal of African Languages 30, 2, 209-221.
Lindfors, Bernth, 1994: “Sherlock Holmes in Africa: Kenya, Zanzibar and Tanzania”. Comparative Approaches to African Literatures. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 83-91.
Matzke, Christine and Susanne Mühleisen (eds.), 2006: Postcolonial Postmortems. Crime Fiction from a Transcultural Perspective. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi.
Muponde, Robert, and Primorac, Ranka (eds.), 2005: Versions of Zimbabwe: New Approaches to Literature and Culture. Harare: Weaver Press.
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, 1986: Decolonizing the Mind. Nairobi: Heinemann Kenya.
Oed, Anja and Uta Reuster-Jahn (eds.), 2008: Beyond the Language Issue: The Production, Mediation and Reception of Creative Writing in African Languages. Cologne: Rüdiger Köppe.
Okome, Onookome, 2012: “African cinema and the meaning of independence”. Unpublished guest lecture, Iwalewa House, Bayreuth, Germany, 11th June.
Quinn, Mary Lou and Eugene P.A. Schleh, 1991: “Popular crime in Africa: the Macmillan Education program”. In: Eugene Schleh (ed.): Mysteries of Africa. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 39-49.
Scaggs, John, 2005: Crime Fiction. London: Routledge.
Schleh, Eugene (ed.), 1991: Mysteries of Africa. Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press.
Stiebel, Lindy, 2002: “Black ‘tecs: popular thrillers by South African Black writers in the nineties”. In: Stephanie Newell (ed.): Readings in African Popular Fiction. Oxford: James Currey, 187-192.
 The phrase ‘murder by magic’ was borrowed from the title of a book which inhabits a somewhat controversial position in the field of African crime fiction. Nandi D’Lovu’s popular thriller from 1993, featuring a James Bondian protagonist with the telling name ‘John Zulu’, was first marketed and received as a ‘black’ text in South Africa at the brink of liberation; later, however, it turned out to be written by a white female journalist “with extensive experience in ’Namibia and Anzania’” (Stiebel 2002: 190). The symposium had no direct link to this text but was meant to indicate that the scope of African crime fiction goes far beyond popular concerns with the mystical and magic. Some, but by no means all African writers draw on traditional spiritual beliefs in their fiction. Those who do, do so for diverse reasons and to different effects. Rarely is the supernatural employed as an exoticising element; often it is simply part and parcel of a local modernity in which smart phones and the latest investigative methods play an equally important role.
 The Pacesetters series began to be published in the 1970s and folded in the early 1990s. Schleh and Quinn discuss works published between 1977 and 1987.
 For early examples see Lindfors 1994 and Ezenwa-Ohaeto 1995.
 The paper Joubert presented at the symposium was published in theSouth African Journal of African Languages; see Joubert 2010.
 We wish to thank Oladipo Agboluaje for drawing our attention to this website.
Some years ago there was an attempt to arrange a dinner at Societi Bistro in Orange Street, Cape Town with three crime fiction writers: Margie Orford, Sarah Lotz and me. The evening didn’t come off but Sarah and I wrote a short story that incorporated the proposed menu. All to create the right ambience, you understand. Can’t quite remember why Margie wasn’t part of the writing deal but suspect she was elsewhere in the world, and as we had a tight deadline to meet it had to be done chop-chop. So much for chop-chop. When tidying up some old files languishing in the Crime Beat folder I came across the story and thought, what the hell, post it. Sarah and Margie gave the nod so here it is. If you’re in the zone you’ll recognise the characters, if you don’t where’ve you been, my chinas?
The Deadly Menu
We’re sitting in Societi Bistro on Orange. At Georgie Allen’s invitation.
He’d phoned, said, ‘Mace Bishop I have a job for you. I’d said, ‘Yeah, who?’ He’d said, ‘Tomorrow at the bistro.’
So here we are.
‘You,’ I say, pointing my knife at Georgie, the worst dressed lawyer I’ve ever seen, ‘you want me to guard her’ – shifting my knife to point at the skinny woman, Dr Clare Hart. ‘You’ve got to be joking. She’s trouble. People try to kill her.’
‘Sir,’ says the waiter or waitron or whatever the hell you call them nowadays, ‘what will sir have for starters?’
I glare at the waiter, come back to Georgie. ‘No. Never. Got it. Not a snowballs.’ To the waiter say, ‘I don’t do soup. Specially not Rustic potato and broccoli soup. Who eats broccoli anyhow?’
‘The Creamy hake brushetta,’ he says, scribbling on his pad.
‘And sir’s main course?’
The waiter’s the sort of guy you wanna whack.
I’m dying for a cigarette. Mace’s hard-boiled attitude isn’t making things any easier, and Clare keeps checking her watch. Still, it could be worse.
It’s worse. A loud Scottish voice blares over the musak, and Patrick bustles into the room, all five foot one inch of him. ‘All right, Georgie?’ he says to me. He points at Clare. ‘You that profiler lassie? I’ll need to brief you later.’ He glances at Mace. ‘And talking of briefs, you still wearing speedos, Mace?’
I don’t like the way Mace is fingering his steak knife.
‘This is my associate, Advocate Patrick McLennan,’ I say to Clare. She doesn’t look impressed. I don’t blame her. She’s doing us a favour agreeing to be our expert witness on a serial-killing case, and she’s taking a chance meeting us here.
The waiter hovers nervously at Patrick’s elbow. ‘What would sir like for his main? The Smoked pork cutlet? We serve that with potatoes, green beans, mustard. Or there’s the Vegetarian option, lovely soft polenta, summer veg, shavings of parmesan. Or sir can have the Fish of the day? That comes with potatoes, anchovy, rocket, some chilli for zing.’
Patrick winks at Clare, grabs the bread on her side plate and stuffs it into his mouth.
‘I’ll have the lot, laddie,’ he grunts.
Clare sighs, Mace glares, Patrick’s oblivious. The waiter looks like he’s going to argue. But even he can see there’s no point.
What’s with the Hart woman? She wants a starter that’s all, no main, no pudding. She’s thin. Thin like a pin. She needs food.
‘You a GP doctor, Clare?’ I ask to keep the scene light.
She shakes her head. Says nothing. Georgie’s pal, the advocate with the stains on his tie, fat flabber, pipes up, ‘Pee aitch dee, Mace. D’you ken?’
Guy’s asking for a smashed thumb.
‘Will sir have dessert?’ says the waiter.
Will sir have dessert? That’s a question? Is the president a polygamist?
I check the menu. Strawberry Eton mess or Profiteroles.
‘Profiteroles,’ I say. Chantilly cream, chocolate, way to go, my brother.
I scope the bistro. Notice her then. The black leather glove, the rosebud on her table, the dude with the short dreads beside her. The dude reaching into his jacket.
Patrick nudges me. ‘Check it out, laddie. Isn’t that Sheemina February? The opposition?’
I peer past a table of ladies-who-dine. He’s right. It is. She’s sexy as all hell, but even I’m not stupid enough to get involved with her. She’s known as the bitch goddess in legal circles, the epitome of a lawyer with a heart of ice.
‘What’s with that black glove?’ Patrick glances sneakily at Mace. ‘She like a psycho version of Michael Jackson or something?’
Mace stiffens. He has a history with Sheemina. But he won’t say what kind of history.
The dreadlocked guy next to her, eyes as jumpy as a tik addict’s, pulls an iPhone out of his jacket pocket. Mace relaxes slightly.
‘Chill out, Mace. Not even Sheemina’s going to try something in a place like this,’ Patrick says, mouth full of Eton mess.
The waiter glides towards us with our coffees on a tray. Clare stands up and says she’s going to the ladies’.
It happens fast. Too fast.
Clare shouts; the tray clatters onto the table.
‘Get down!’ Mace yells. The crack of gunfire kills the musak.
Patrick rugby tackles me off my chair, his ninety kilos squashing the breath out of my lungs.
There’s a moment of pure silence. Then screaming. The thud of footsteps as the rest of the diners flee in a panicked mass. The clack of stiletto heels. I look up. Sheemina smiles icily down at me.
‘I’ll see you in court, Mr Allen,’ she says. She glances at Mace, licks her lips. ‘And don’t forget to bring back-up. You’ll need it.’
I scramble to my feet. Mace slips his gun back into his waistband and we all look down at the body on the floor.
‘I knew that waiter was too efficient to be true,’ Patrick says.
The pages of the waiter’s order pad lie scattered in a crimson halo around his head; his fingers are still curled around his gun. Clare leans down gracefully to check the wannabe assassin’s vital signs. No point. Even I can see he won’t be telling anyone about the specials in the near future.
Patrick breaks the silence. ‘Think I’ll come here again,’ he says. ‘Company was crap but the food was to die for.’
To recap: a few years ago there was a conference on African crime fiction in Germany that went under the title Murder by Magic. The title came from a novel published by Nandi D’Lovu but nobody knew who Nandi D’Lovu was. Literary commentator and academic Lindi Stiebel had mentioned in a paper she’d written on South African black thriller writers that Nandi D’Lovu was a white woman but this was where the trail went dead. Crime Beat, donned a deerstalker:
Turned out that Nandi D’Lovu was the pen name of Mary Phillips. And that Mary Phillips was a prodigious writer. She died in Eshowe on 31 May 2011 at the age of 95. Her son Nick Phillips sent me this note on her life:
“Mary Daisy Mabel Martin was born in England on 24 August 1915. After completing her schooling at a convent in Canada, she joined the British army at the start of World War Two and found herself working as private secretary to Sir David Bowes-Lion, the Queen Mother’s brother, who was a member of the Political Warfare Executive, the British Secret Propaganda Department. Whether this assignment had any influence on her future writing career we can’t say but it certainly launched her into a fascinating wartime career. Much later, following the Allied invasion of Italy in 1943, Mary found herself heading up a small secretarial corps sent to support the Allied High Command in Naples, Italy, and it was here that she met her future husband, Peter Phillips, who was working for the Army Broadcasting Services also based in that city.
Peter was a composer who gained some fame for his work. During World War Two he composed much of the incidental music for a show called ITMA. It’s That Man Again was a BBC radio comedy programme which ran from 1939 to 1949. The title was a contemporary phrase referring to the frequent news-stories about Hitler in the lead-up to World War Two, and starred Tommy Handley, a popular comedian of the time.
Mary and Peter were married in Italy and repatriated to England in 1945.
The family home was in Plymouth, Devon, where the family business held the agency for Steinway pianos and had been trading in musical instruments and accessories for many generations.
During the next few years children, Christopher, Richard and Kim were born and in 1955 Mary and Peter decided to emigrate to South Africa and make a new start as economic conditions in England were not encouraging.
Faced with bringing up a young family in a new country was a considerable challenge to Mary and Peter whose previous experience had been largely in music and entertainment. In Johannesburg Peter produced music for a record production company that specialised in advertising products to predominantly black consumers and so was able to do a lot of work with emerging black musicians during the early 1960s, and Mary worked as a secretary for Springbok Radio. It was during this period that Mary had her first writing opportunities.
The long running and popular series, ‘Consider Your Verdict’, produced by Michael Silver, required some scripting and Mary started ghost writing scripts for the programme on a regular basis. In 1965 a chance meeting with the actress Moira Lister, who was performing in Johannesburg accompanied by her young daughter Chantal, led to Gallo Africa releasing a record entitled ‘What Happened Then’, a collection of well known nursery rimes to which Mary had written sequels, narrated by Moira Lister and her daughter.
Mary was also a regular contributor to the overseas service of the SABC for which she wrote more than fifty short stories and features.
Clearly it was setting foot on African soil in the late 1950s that ignited her creative imagination. Mary and Peter, had come to explore as widely as possible the vast and majestic beauty of the southern African landscape, and the diversity of its people and heritage. Mary began writing in earnest.
Travelling widely across the southern African region opened many new horizons of literary possibility and the list of works that were published reflect this rich diversity and love of Africa’s early history.
In the 1970s Mary found herself, for a short while, writing freelance material for the infamous Department of Information under the leadership of Eschel Rhoodie, during which time she was able to travel extensively in Namibia. Here Mary was inspired to sharpen her pencil and focus her gaze on the dreamtime fables and legends of the sub-continent’s earliest inhabitants.
Later, she turned her hand to historical fiction and produced several thrillers rooted firmly in sound research and historical integrity. Some of these are set in European localities; others in South Africa (KwaZulu-Natal, in particular) which allowed her to express her fascination for local history and the myths and legends of African culture.
In her years of active writing, Mary published over 20 titles, including works of fiction and fantasy and works of historical biography. In this latter category, she produced works based on the lives of two of the most outstanding kings in Zulu history, namely Shaka and Cetshwayo, drawing attention to their importance and stature in South African history.
Until his death in 1979, Peter Phillips, Mary’s husband, acted as her editor and agent. After his death, Mary continued to write and much of her output was devoted to producing relevant reading material for young people in South Africa today. Many of these manuscripts remain unpublished.
In her later years, Mary Phillips’ flair for writing remained undimmed. She continued to conjure into being ideas for new plots and new stories and was often to be heard bashing these out her portable Olympia typewriter.”
As I find pen names intriguing I asked both Nick Phillips and writer and researcher Jane Argall, who was appointed as Mary’s literary executor, why she had chosen the name Nandi D’lovu.
Nick Phillips: During the late 1980s and early 1990s a market for English language short novels arose when publishers in the UK such as Heinemann and Macmillan were selling these books in the sub-Saharan Africa market (not South Africa). An editorial decision was taken to use a nom-de-plume for marketing purposes and the name Nandi (King Shaka’s Mother) D’lovu (probably from Mgungundlovu, King Dingane’s capital at Ulundi) was chosen. Perhaps it was felt that a white South African author’s name on the publications would not be appropriate. Interestingly, although both the series were discontinued there is a continuing demand in West African countries, to this day, for copies from the Macmillan series.
Jane Argall: Mary had an affinity with the mother of Shaka, Nandi. I believe that this inspired the choice of the first name. D’lovu was plucked from the air. Immediately, conscious and conscientised readers would see that the name Nandi D’lovu does not emanate from a Zulu naming orthography, the first signal that it was a pseudonym and borrowed from another tradition. She used it for only a few of her titles. There was never any sense of ‘hiding behind’ it, any willful concealing of her identity. It’s just that she had such a vast, polymorphous output – different kinds of books and spheres of interest. I think she invented the name simply to give weight to her filling the territory. As pseudonyms do.
In a note on Mary Phillips, Jane Argall writes:
I only knew her for the last seven or eight years of her life. By this period, she was more or less done with writing (although she could, and did, produce over two days a new manuscript in the Jon Zulu detective series – on a weekend dare from me).
Mary’s creative output was immense. She was extraordinarily talented in literary composition – her prose had a silken perfection about it, her plots were intricate and pretty flawless, her titles engaging. Her view of the world, however, was locked into a romantic imperial era well behind us now. The reviewer who located Murder by Magic in the Rider Haggard mode was spot on. She had limited ability to conceive of an evolving historical and political context, and the function and power of the text to reveal the shifts. As her editor, I tried very hard to do something with the remaining 10 titles in the Jon Zulu series – to re-conceptualise the series and re-characterise the central agents of the stories. We even tried to make Jon Zulu not Zulu. Ultimately, these efforts did not see the light of day.
Likewise, we were unable to re-hash her crime stories set in Europe. These unpublished manuscripts have all the signs of her brilliance. Again, they were set in a world which no longer exists. Indeed, even at the time she bashed them out on her Olympia portable (perhaps the 1990s) the scene had faded. Certainly, no one today pops down to the hotel lobby to send a cable.”
For the two earlier stories and the all important comments that led to the search for Nandi D’Lovu:
Crime Beat: A Mystery:
Crime Beat: Tracing Mary Phillips
Here is the complete list of the published and unpublished works of Mary Phillips, courtesy of Jane Argall:
1965 What happened then - Published on long-playing record by Gallo Africa by Moira Lister and daughter; Children’s stories
1966 Shoot the Popinjay – Published by Simondium, Cape Town. Historical novel dealing in the history of the Cape
1966 Tallow and Wick - Published by HAUM, Cape Town. Historical novel dealing in the history of the Cape
1967 The Bushman Speaks – Published by Howard Timmins, Cape Town. Documentary fiction
1968 The Cave of Uncle Kwa – Published by Purnell, Cape Town. Bushman tales
1969 The Nineteenth Burger – Published by Da Gama, Johannesburg; (re-published in London by Ian Henry 1983). Documentary fiction: history of the Cape
1970 A Fit of Coffin – Published by Constantia, Cape Town. Three South African ghost tales
1971 Short stories – Twenty stories written for radio and broadcast by the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) throughout the 1970s
1972 African tales of long, long ago – Seven tales written for radio and broadcast by the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) in 1971
1973 Catchee Chinaman – Published by El Grego, Pretoria. Fiction: a novel dealing with the fantastic Chinese game of Fah Fee in South Africa
1974 Passage from India - Published by Purnell, Johannesburg. Documentary account of South African Indian community
1975 The South African Indian – Published by Department of Information. Documentary account of South African Indian community
1979 Valley of the Virgin Warrior – Published by Knox, Durban. History of the Nkwaleni valley, Zululand
1982 Angel of Death – Published by MacMillan, Oxford; under pseudonym Nandi D’lovu. Crime fiction series featuring Detective Jon Zulu
1988 Race against Rats – Published by Heinemann, Basingstoke; under pseudonym Nandi D’lovu. Crime fiction series featuring Detective Jon Zulu
1993 Murder by Magic – Published by Ivan Knox, Durban; under pseudonym Nandi D’lovu. Crime fiction series featuring Detective Jon Zulu
1993 Bride for a King – Published by Heinemann, Oxford; under pseudonym Nandi D’lovu
1994 Star – Published by Macmillan, Basingstoke. Fiction: African love story
1995 Wake not the Wolf – Published by William Waterman, Johannesburg (returned in copyright). Detective Jon Zulu paperback
1995 Day of the Dragon – Published by William Waterman, Johannesburg (returned in copyright). Detective Jon Zulu paperback
1. Dance of a Nama God – Novel concerning an adventure of a young couple lost in the ancient Namib desert – only to be saved by a mysterious Khoikhoi and a buried ship.
2. Killer Collection - Concerning the rare book trade and an adventure set in Holland.
3. Black King? White Knight - The true story of a Zulu king and his white friend John Dunn and the end of a lifetime of close ties.
4. How to steal an Emerald Mine – Crime thriller; based on a true story
5. The Devil’s Woman - Fiction; an African love story
6. Claws and effect - Crime fiction; An elderly tyrant determines to rule her family from beyond the grave. This ran for a year as a radio soap opera under the title The Evil that Men Do and was broadcast by the South African Broadcasting Corporation.
7. A recipe for murder - Crime fiction; A mystery concerning the wines and liqueurs of France
8. Barney - Play script; a musical play telling of how Cecil John Rhodes tricked Barney Barnato out of his ownership of the biggest diamond mine in Kimberley in 1880
9. The Camel Thorn Tree -
10. Spirit in the Sand
JON ZULU ADVENTURE SERIES
Further unpublished titles in the Jon Zulu series:
1. Monomatapa’s Treasure
2. The Money Makers
3. The Lightning Bird
4. Son of Shaka
5. Murder by Magic
6. The Secret of the Lala People
7. The Midnight Man
8. Day of the Dragon
9. Wake not the Wolf
The life and times of Nandi D’Lovu – the author of the crime novel Murder by Magic – remains a mystery for the main part but some other information has come to light. After Louis Greenberg added interesting details about the publishing venture that got the book into print (see comments at Crime Beat: A mystery) I wrote to David Hilton-Barber, the other person involved in the book’s publications.
Here is his response:
“I was in the PR business in those days and my friend Willy Greenberg was a freelance journalist. We hit on the idea of publishing books in paperback by SA journalists. We had good relations with Knox printers in Durban and they said they were able to produce these books at a remarkably low rate. We approached CNA with a proposal that they should drop their exorbitant commission and we reckoned they would sell thousands. But we could never get past their accountants. Among our list of authors was Mary Phillips who lived in with her son in Empangeni. I even went to see her and she was quite keen. Yes, she wrote under that name and was apparently quite successful. So the short answer is we never got our publishing business off the ground. ”
At the time it seems her son ran an auditing business in Empangeni.
NELM also supplied some information, including her birth date: 1919. Some further googling revealed that a Mary Phillips published a book called The Bushman Speaks (H Timmins) in 1961; then Shoot the Popinjay (Simondium) in 1966, and then a non-fiction called Valley of the Virgin Warriors (1980) of which more here.
The life of Mary Phillips remains unknown. So now to track down the son.
During the Afrikanissimo weekend in Frankfurt back in January, I briefly met an academic with a love of crime fiction, Christine Matzke. She has sent me the published proceedings of a crime fiction symposium (Beyond ‘Murder by Magic’) held in 2008 at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany. Next month there’ll be a flood of posts on Crime Beat from the proceedings, titled: Life is a Thriller – Investigating African Crime Fiction. Three SA crime writers attended that conference: Deon Meyer, Angela Makholwa and Meshack Masondo.
But before we get to the heavy stuff from the conference there is somewhat of a mystery that some private eye might well be able to solve.
As Christine explains in a footnote, the title of the symposium was borrowed from a novel of the same title. A novel with a ‘somewhat controversial position in the field of African crime fiction.’ The author of the novel is one Nandi D’Lovu, and at this point I need to turn to Lindy Stiebel, a prof at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, who in 2002 contributed a chapter to a book called, Readings in African Popular Fiction, edited by Stephanie Newell and published by James Currey. Stiebel’s chapter was titled “Black ‘Tecs’: Popular Thrillers by South African Black Writers in the Nineties”.
She writes: “Perhaps one should begin with D’Lovu’s thriller because it captured considerable media attention on publication. The detective hero, Jon Zulu, was hailed as the ‘black equivalent of Sherlock Holmes (The Daily News, 1996) though with James Bond overtones as the review article picked up, in echoing Bond’s famous opening line, ‘Zulu’s the name – Jon Zulu.’ The film rights, the article informed us, had been purchased by an American producer for well-known playwright Mbongeni Ngema with Danny Glover as possible lead; the Zulu translation had been presented to King Goodwill Zwelithini who lavishly praised its hero as embodying ‘traditional Zulu virtues’, and future plans included translation into other South African languages spurred on by its popular reception in Zulu and English. Excited by the prospect of a new black South African thriller writer, and a woman at that, imagine my surprise when told by the publishers that Nandi D’Lovu is the pseudonym for a white woman who, as the dustjacket tells the reader, is a freelance journalist with extensive experience ‘in Namibia and Azania’. One can only speculate that the author and publishers were hoping that a black writer would be better received as the originator of a popular crime story and aimed at newly literate readers – the text is under a hundred pages and simply written.
“Given, therefore, that it does not technically fall into the category of thrillers under discussion, despite its misleading author’s name, Murder by Magic will not be fully discussed, though its marketing and reception as a ‘black’ text have been interesting. Though there are hints of Sherlock Holmes and James Bond in this novel, the text is actually strongly reminiscent of a Rider Haggard adventure story in setting – rural Zululand, away from the modern city – and in subject matter – a village held under thrall by a powerful witchdoctor, a search for the legendary Lala treasure buried during Chaka’s time, all muddled in with gunrunners working ‘for some stupid organisation that prefers killing to living’. (D’Lovu, 1999. 88). Though the book highlights black protagonists, notably Jon Zulu, the ‘famous Zulu detective from America and his friend Abel Ngubane’, the sharp political commentary typical of the South African thriller is largely absent; what political critique there is, is aimed at European imperialism of a distant past.”
Nandi D’Lovu has written a clutch of books for children and was also published in the Macmillan Pacemaker series under the name Nandi Dlovu. The titles: Angel of Death and Race Against Rats.
Any idea who the mysterious Nandi D’Lovu is?
Michael Sears (one half of the Michael Stanley duo) has been delving into the mysterious ways of epublishing and after some frustrating experiences has surfaced intact with an ebook on a number of platforms. His story below is not for the faint of heart.
Last month I engaged in a learning exercise. With our new novel – Deadly Harvest – out in May, we thought it would be fun to put together a small ebook of our Kubu short stories. The idea was to give it away as a teaser for readers who might not have met Detective Kubu before, as well as to provide a Kubu ‘fix’ for enthusiastic readers complaining about the delay between books, the non-existence of audiobooks, and any other Kubu related grievance. How hard could it be? From the dizzy height of ignorance I was sure that anyone with a computer and a few hours could put it together.
We expected the only potential snags to be finding a good title and getting permission from the editors where the stories first appeared. While we waited for the latter, we wrote a new short story to throw into the collection; as for the former, we started calling the collection Detective Kubu Investigates while we came up with something catchy and as the technical stuff took over Detective Kubu Investigates stuck. And the editors all responded quickly and positively.
The first problem was giving the ebook away. I suppose it’s not rocket science that since distributors take a percentage of the sale, they’re not too keen on the idea of the sale being zero. There are rumors that if you sell it somewhere for nothing (e.g. on your website) then your friends can alert Amazon to the fact that their price is higher and they’ll reduce it. Well, we don’t sell things on our website (even for nothing) and don’t want to start. Also, we were told that people believe they get what they pay for. So if it’s free… Eventually we compromised. We would make the book available free to download from our latest newsletter; everyone else could fork out US$0.99 – the lowest price Amazon allows.
Now came the fun part. Stan [Trollip, the other half of the duo] consulted The Sisters. No, not a witches’ coven but the Sisters in Crime (SIC), the great US national organization of women crime writers. Not discriminatory though. Stan is a member. The reaction was muted. Terms like ‘Smashwords’, ‘Draft2Digital’,’ KDP’, ‘EPUB’, ‘Kindle Select’ and ‘Good Luck!’ were tossed around. I started to feel a bit daunted.
Now, if you have a Kindle, you can send Amazon an email with a PDF attached and get it back in Kindle format by return of mail so to speak. I took a look at what came back when I sent them Detective Kubu Investigates and started feeling more daunted.
As the old saying goes, when all else fails read the manual. One of the Sisters had suggested that. I downloaded the manual with trepidation.
Well, here’s the good news. It’s short and comprehensive. When it asks you to do something unusual in Word, for example, it tells you exactly how to do that. It tells you what not to do. If you follow it carefully pretty soon you have something. You upload it and it lets you pretend to be any Kindle of your choice. What does your masterpiece look like on a Fire? How about a DX? I don’t know; I never discovered what a DX was. The first thing I did discover was that our atmospheric red-tinged cover just looked a mess in black and white. So back to the earlier, plainer version. And there were things wrong. But really not a lot. Pretty soon I was proudly looking at the advert on Amazon for Detective Kubu Investigates complete with cover picture, blurb, about the author and so on.
But our $0.99 book was $2.99 in South Africa! Hell, it’s the cost of all those extra electrons it takes to deliver it here. What’s more I had no access to a file that we could deliver to our loyal newsletter readers for free.
I took a look at epub for Nook. They invited me to download the manual and noted that I had to have a US tax number. I gave that up.
I took a look at Smashwords. Its website was long and detailed and invited me to download the manual. I was getting desperate. I tried Draft2Digital, and suddenly everything was simple! Why hadn’t I come here first? Just send us more or less a book and we’ll set it all up and publish it for you. For 15%. Now at this point we have a book for $2.99. The electrons take 2 dollars. Of the 99c left, Amazon has 70% which leaves 29c. Hell, if Draft2Digital wants five cents of that for setting up the book, they’re welcome!
There had to be a catch. Actually there were three. The first one was that when, bubbling with enthusiasm, I clicked YES SIGN ME UP! I got a polite message telling me Draft2Digital was in beta testing. If I had an invitation code, I was welcome to continue. Otherwise they would let me know when a slot opened up. I gritted my teeth and prepared to download the multimegabyte Smashwords manual. But almost instantly my email pinged and there was the code! Apparently a slot had just opened up in Draft2Digital’s testing program for Detective Kubu Investigates.
So I sent them the book. That’s when I hit the second catch. They didn’t expect me to have done all the things in the Kindle manual. They expected me to have thrown together a bunch of pages and let them make it pretty. Making pretty twice produces a mess. I had to back off and send them a vanilla version. Then I could see what that would look like on Kindle, Nook, PDF, KOBO, Apple and so on. Detective Kubu Investigates was released not only to Amazon but to the eworld. And we had our own freely distributable copies. Life was good.
All was well until we tried to offer the books for free in our Newsletter. To cut a long story short, our website host doesn’t recognize the file types and won’t deliver them. We were eventually saved by one of my students (!) who put them up on his server. Then add a bit of finger trouble and the first lot of newsletters went out without the links active.
I’d like to say there was a flood of complaints, but there wasn’t. I think anyone interested in Detective Kubu Investigates decided it was much more convenient to pay the 99c and get it comfortably delivered to their Kindle, Nook, whatever. Thanks, everyone. We really appreciate that 24 cents! There’s a link below to the collection on Amazon, but you’re welcome to a free copy by going to our latest newsletter on our website.
Oh, the third catch with D2D? They never asked me for any details of what to do with the money they received from sales. Maybe that’s why it’s still in beta testing. Maybe we achieved giving the book away for nothing after all!
Go here to find out about the Kindle book.
The latest Detective Kubu Newsletter.
The Amazon link to Detective Kubu Investigates.
For the Michael Stanley website lick here.
Last month I had an email exchange about crime fiction with krimi fundi Gunter Blank who reviews for the SonntagsZeitung. At one point I said crime fiction wasn’t in the realist tradition – largely because of the conventions it has to observe. Of course I shouldn’t have used the term realism. Gunter came back with guns blazing. You could say he fired at point blank range. Here’s his salvo (although I have to add that Gunter is uncomfortable with the gun metaphor and at shooting at me. Which is a wise decision on his part. ‘Let’s say,’ he says, ‘your remark triggered some extending musings…’ So here are those musings:
I was kinda surprised that your answer of crime fiction being realism was rather a no, insinuating that crime fiction was always kind of over the top and that real life was never so violent/heavy as described in crime novels.
Well, I would say that’s not the point. Crime fiction is certainly not naturalism, as in Zola or Gerhard Hauptmann his German counterpart and predecessor depicting a one to one picture of working class misery. But then realism has always transcended that. Actually it came into being as a distinction to naturalism. I guess the bottom line definition of realism if we extend the term into the twentieth century and include writes from Dos Passos to DeLillo or Jonathan Franzen is somewhat that it draws an accurate picture of society or individuals or aspects of both, by exaggerating, distilling, condensing even ridiculing real facts into a literary form.
Postmodernism and it’s kid brother comic book violence might have further complicated the definition of realism, but as I tend to include satire in the realm of realism (Mark Twain belongs to the original canon), I also tend to call films like Inglourious Basterds or Django Unchained as maybe extra matrimonial kids of the realism family.
Tarantino was confronted with similar absurd critics about his portrait of slavery being excessively violent, to which he simply said, well we didn’t show the worst atrocities, so shut up.)
As you might have suspected I therefore tend to include most of contemporary crime fiction in the Realism Family.
Let’s go back for a moment to where it all began:
Hammett, Cain and Chandler in my opinion belong to realism as much as Hemingway, Döblin, Dos Passos and Steinbeck (the latter I would even put into naturalism). The same goes for James Ellroy, Charles Willeford, David Peace to name a few. I would put them all in the same box as Don DeLillo, John Updike or Carlos Fuentes.
Of course realism may only be one aspect of a given writers work, his novel may contain other elements romanticism (as in the case of Raymond Chandler), or the psychological approach of James Cain. I cannot see much difference in the narrative approach of Henry James (a canon realist) and James Cain. Hammett, still my favourite, actually had it down in all areas, from comic book violence in Red Harvest to psychological realism in The Dain Curse, to gritty no nonsense realism in The Glass Key, still one of the best crime novels ever. Not to forget The Maltese Falcon – a perfectly balanced seesaw of realism and metaphysics. And to ice it, he made fun of all of this and especially of himself in The Thin Man and seemingly effortless achieved a Fitzgerald-like portrait of the upper classes.
Of course we can and should add all kinds of adjectives to the term realism, to better distinguish certain styles, or schools or whatever.
So back to the South African crime novelist. At least those I know I would all call realist, and to start a decent discussion should deal with whether they achieve a believable crime fiction structure and how they achieve a believable portrait of society (or aspects of it) or of one or more characters. (I recall some discussions about Roger Smith’s Capture where most everybody said, that kid should have been abused and killed in the end, that would have been more realistic. It was felt that the forced happy ending it took away some of the intensity and credibility of the narrative. So who’s over the top here – reality or the writer? Actually twenty years ago I would have subscribed to this argument, but I guess I’m getting old and sloppy – at least, these days I don’t mind a happy ending every now and then.)
So from there on one could start a comparative study of South African crime fiction. But never mind, most of my colleagues on the KrimiZeit Bestenliste jury probably wouldn’t subscribe to that, with the exception of maybe Thomas Wörtche an old defender of realism in crime fiction. And you might be surprised that even on that common ground I guess I could have the direst discussions with him about what contemporary crime fiction should accomplish.
William Saunderson-Meyer keeps an eye on the local and international thriller scene for the Sunday Times. A couple of Sundays back he took a look at some upcoming reading:
Whatever 2013 might bring in trouble and strife, there is always a good thriller to spirit you away from it all. And the publishers have some grand treats planned for you to pencil into that crisp new calendar.
Some are predictable. If you are a James Patterson fan it will no doubt delight you to know that his publishers, Little, Brown & Co, have one of his titles scheduled for release every month, starting with Private Berlin in January, right through to Mistress, in August. Then he presumably lolls about on a private beach before cooking up the next batch with his team of researchers and co-authors.
Despite the cookie-cutter plots, Patterson’s characters are actually rather well drawn. Alec Cross, his fictional Washington DC detective, is probably now the best known African American cop since Sidney Poitier played Virgil Tibbs’ in the 1967 movie, In the Heat of the Night, from John Balls’ book of the same name.
And the sales figures tell the story: a Guinness world record of 76 consecutive hardcover bestselling titles; total lifetime sales of 260m copies; and the mind boggling fact that one of every 17 books sold in the United States is a Patterson title. Eat your hearts out Dan Brown, John Grisham and Steven King, who not even collectively match Patterson’s popularity.
Also something of a writing dervish is David Baldacci – unlike Patterson he doesn’t have collaborators and is scathing of the ‘book-manufacturing process’ – whose publishers, Pan Macmillan, released The Innocent, as well as The Forgotten in time for Christmas.
The Innocent introduces a stone-cold CIA assassin, Will Robie, while The Hit, to be published in February, takes the story further. The Forgotten is the second Baldacci that features John Puller, the military investigator based, Baldacci cheerfully admits, on British writer Lee Child’s wonderfully odd former military cop, Jack Reacher.
Reacher is proof, should any be needed, that with the help of a brilliant character, a good wordsmith can create a series — the 17th Reacher novel, A Wanted Man came out late in 2012 — that needn’t flag in energy. Jack Reacher, the movie starring Tom Cruise, opened at Christmas and January sees the publication of Reacher’s Rules: Life Lessons (Bantam Press). A sample: ‘People live and they die and as long as they do both things properly, there’s nothing much to regret.’
The inimitable Lawrence Block returns after a two-year drought with Hit Me (Barnes & Noble). Nicholas Edwards renovates houses and works on his stamp collection. Then the economy crashes and Edwards has to fall back on an identity and a job he had retired from – Keller, the hit man.
In the first quarter of 2013 there arrives from Scandinavian shores Until Thy Wrath Be Past (Quercus) by Asa Larsson, who is no relation to the more-famous Stieg, of Dragon Tattoo fame but arguably the pick of the new crop of Swedish crime writers. From Penguin there’s Danish author Sara Blaedel’s Blue Blood, her third title translated into English, featuring Copenhagen cop Louise Rick. Blaedel has thrice been voted Denmark’s most popular writer and deserves to be more widely known.
In March there’s another quality foreign import, this time from Japan. Keigo Higashono, that counry’s top crime writer, delights in constructing ingeniously intricate plots. Salvation of a Saint (Penguin) is about a Tokyo detective trying to unpick a web of deceit to determine whether a beautiful wife possibly could have poisoned her husband, given that she was hundreds of kilometres away at the time of his death.
Margie Orford, doyenne of the South African crime writing community, has a new title in May, Water Music (Jonathan Ball). It’s the fifth one featuring Cape Town profiler Claire Hart, who has not only become a firm favourite locally, but internationally, through translation into nine languages.
Mike Nicol’s long-awaited new thriller arrives from Umuzi, in both English and Afrikaans, in October. Ten months is unconscionably long to have to wait but Of Cops & Robbers sounds like vintage Nicol: a surfer dude and a gambling-addicted lawyer caught in the fallout from revenge killings by old hit squad operatives and government orchestrated rhino horn deals. In short, a dose of South African surrealism with a garrotte around its neck.
Finally, look out for South African-born Belinda Bauer’s Rubbernecker (Random House) in February. It’s the tale of Michael, a young man obsessed with death, who while dissecting a cadaver in anatomy class becomes convinced that he has stumbled upon a murder. Bauer, who won a Golden Dagger for her debut novel, Badlands, is always convincingly scary.
I hand the baton over to Barbara Erasmus. She is the author of several absorbing novels (the kind you do not want to put down until you reach the very last page); her settings are South African, her writing is like a breath of fresh air, but the subtext is always deeply thought-provoking. Her first novel Kaleidoscope deals with the tragic topic of autism and her latest offering Below Luck Level confronts the issue of how families cope with the problem of Alzheimer’s.
This invitation to join the chain of writers involved in MY NEXT THING was sent to me by the most prolific of Cape Town writers, Heather Lewis, who has now self-published 26 books on topics ranging from street children to antique bottles. She is currently working on The Devadasi Flashbacks, a novel drawn from her latest publication Dance of Bliss, a beautifully illustrated insight into the intricacies and history of Indian classical dance. Visit www.facebook.com/iHilihiliPress to find out more about a versatile writer who ‘dares to be different and produces startlingly original books.’
And now for my own answers to the questions set…
What is the working title of your book?
My Next Best Thing is my new career in marketing. My fourth novel Below Luck Level is headed for the dizzy heights of the NewYork Best Sellers List – once my campaign clicks into gear. It’s first billing was Fishhoek. Then Greyton. Pinelands is next.
New York may seem distant but any traveller knows that it’s best to go via the scenic route.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
She lives below luck level is from a Kay Ryan poem that caught my fancy. It goes on to mention a lottery. And ends with wings. I thought I could fly with that idea…
What genre does your book fall under?
My strength is humour but I have a predilection for tragedy. Small-scale domestic tragedy. Nothing Shakespearean. Not a gun or a sharpened blade in sight.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
My story is set in Cape Town so I’d opt for local talent. I need an eccentric mother and an under-achieving daughter so I’d go for Janet Suzman and Karin van der Laag who plays Maggie in Isidingo – I’m a long-term follower of Horizon Deep.
What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book?
My heroine’s career is finally taking off as she evolves from a waitress to a sous-chef but she has to shift her focus to her mother, a semi-famous struggle writer, who loses her way through Alzheimer’s.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Below Luck Level ( 2012), even with insects (2005) and Kaleidoscope (2004) were published by Penguin. Chameleon (2008) was first published in instalments on Mike Nicol’s Crime Beat blog, www.bookslive.crimebeat and then self-published through Mousehand.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
My first three novels were all based on first-hand research which was a lengthy process. For example, I worked in a school for autistic children while writing Kaleidoscope and on a prisoner rehabilitation programme at Pollsmoor while researching Chameleon which is about white collar crime. I wrote Below Luck Level far more quickly because by then, I had become very dependent on the internet for instant, up-to-date medical-research. Also, because Alzheimer’s affects so many families, I had easy access to friends who gave me insight into their own situations as carers.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I have aimed all my novels at a women’s book club market. I’d like to follow the example of writers far more skilled than me, who have a light take on serious subjects, The novel I would most like to have written is Brother of The More Famous Jack by Barbara Trapido but wishful thinking is as far as I can stretch a comparison.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Any pensioner worries about Alzheimer’s. I’ve been unable to remember where I parked at Pick’nPay since I first got my driver’s licence at 16 but once I hit 60, it took on more sinister connotations. There was also a spate of newspaper articles around the Dignitas Clinic. I try to research topical issues which would be of interest to my target market.
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
I hope that it’s not a bleak book, despite the Alzheimer’s angle. I have tried to write a character-driven novel and hope that readers will root for my non-achieving heroine whose major skill is the sleight of hand required to shop-lift; and her mother whose maternal skills are decidedly slap-dash; and then there’s always a couple of friends and lovers – and Cape Town of course.
The next writer in the line-up is Liz McGregor, a local journalist with a international background in Asia and Britain. Her first book Khabzela : The Life and times of a South African gave fresh insight into the AIDS crisis while At Risk and Load-Shedding which she co-edited, are collections of stories by leading South African writers, providing an invaluable perspective on contemporary South Africa. She surprised her readers with a new dimension in Touch Pause Engage, a meticulously researched journey into the heart of South African rugby. To learn about her Next Big Thing, visit www.lizmcgregor.bookslive.co.za