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Crime Beat

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Crime Beat: The Politics of Popular Fiction

Today we’ve got a guest piece written for Crime Beat by a krimi-lover who chose the path of law. Thorne Godhino, our injection of young blood, takes a look at the politics of popular fiction.

I began reading crime fiction at the tender age of twelve; I was drawn into a gritty world, illustrated by the prolific writings of Patricia Cornwell, Karin Slaughter and others, where the reality of complex human emotions, relations and issues was not shied away from. Encasing the intricate mystery which lies at the heart of any crime fiction, were stories of poverty, deceit, and politics. Crime fiction, as a genre, continues to explore and address society’s aspirations, fears and controversies – aspects which shape our individual beliefs and common politics.

Politics cannot only be described as being about governance; it is more often than not, a reaction to the human experience. Beyond the labyrinthine theory and science behind political philosophy lies the need to improve the world and address societal fears. The common reader starts the latest Gerritsen with the understanding that the protagonist will deliver justice and save the day, much like the average voter who hopes her ‘x’ will effect change. Naturally, I cannot pretend politics is akin to popular fiction. However, the medium does provide readers with often real human reactions to circumstances and situations – therefore, similar to politics, the ability for readers to latch on to ideas and messages about societal change does exist.

Crime fiction novels, often spoken of with contempt, might focus more on the reader’s pleasure than the average literary novel, but they definitely don’t deal with fluff. The business of rape, murder, and the circumstances surrounding such acts is not lightweight. And South African authors, especially, are proving to approach the subject with an understanding of the issues which affect ordinary people in this country. In Jassy Mackenzie’s Random Violence, she deals with the contentious issue of land; Karin Brynard, author of Plaasmoord, doesn’t shy away from the barbaric farm attacks which pervade the countryside; and Richard Kunzmann went at lengths to explore the myths and culture surrounding muti in Bloody Harvests. South African crime writers cannot be accused of not addressing real issues.

The inequality, marginalisation of communities, and gender imbalances which are part and parcel of our nation form the backbone of many local thrillers and crime novels. Unscrupulous businessmen, so common in reality, have come to represent those who abuse power for self-gain in many local novels. Some of these antagonists are misogynists, abusers of women – a reflection of a country where women live with the fear of sexual harassment and rape. In Margie Orford’s Blood Rose, readers encounter numerous villains who have come to represent the difference in wealth and power that exists in South Africa – the difference between black and white, women and men. A message regarding equality, and a more ethical capitalism emerges from the pages of local crime fiction.

Some of thriller writer Wessel Ebersohn’s books were banned by the Apartheid state, and just like literary fiction, genre fiction continued to push the superficial boundaries of a racially-engineered society. The current trends in local crime fiction, however, tend to be a more docile response to the issues which plague our nation – not a literary revolution of sorts. Writers now work within the carefully-drawn lines which surround our society – poignant paragraphs rallying against economic inequality, etc remain scare. Where are the writers who challenge the status quo?

Acclaimed historian Robert Ross wrote in 1999 that ‘South Africa will never be a normal country’. As outlined above, local crime writers are featuring social messages in their works – but many aren’t treating the medium as a means to promote the extraordinary change that is needed. The genre rarely shies away from illustrating reality, but the passivity in some of South Africa’s popular fiction makes the genre appear far less honest and more accepting of society as it is.
Val McDermid’s “The Mermaids Singing” is representative of international crime fiction which challenged the reader’s perceptions of society, and of sub-cultures (like Trans-sexuality) not often discussed. This revolution against ignorance serves as an example of how popular fiction can be a conduit for progress. South African crime should, in theory, be at the fore in terms of using the genre as a means to promote so-called progress – politically, socially, and economically.

Politics, like crime, is a permanent fixture in our lives. Crime fiction recognises this, embraces it, and forces readers to examine the human condition. Woodrow Wilson said: “A conservative is a man who just sits and thinks, mostly sits.” Crime fiction, as a genre, catapults readers into a situation where they must look at their reality; in effect: crime fiction is a progressive genre, one which can be used to change minds and effect change.

In such an extraordinary country, where is the criticism, the exploration of some things we’d rather not talk about?

Thorne Godinho is currently reading towards his LLB degree at the University of Pretoria. He is a committed Liberal Democrat, student activist, and aspirant politician. His writings have been published in The Mercury, the Liberal Democrat Voice, and Forthright. Thorne is also the editor and founder of The ChirpRoom, a dynamic youth politics blog.


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