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Crime Beat

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Crime Beat: Are SA krimis mealy-mouthed?

I have to ‘fess up: I was a little stung. I hadn’t seen SA crime fiction as being as rainbow-struck as Thorne Godinho portrays it in his post yesterday on Crime Beat. He really waded in and laid three charges against crime writers that were, well, pretty bruising. In fact he was critical of most of the crime fiction published here in recent years. So much for hardboiled swagger! I was stung into a quick reassessment.

Charge No 1: ‘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?’

For the defence: Admittedly SA crime fiction cannot be called a literary revolution but then I do not see this as the remit of crime fiction anywhere. I’m not sure that it’s entirely true that the criticism of the status quo has been scarce. It occurs repeatedly in Deon Meyer’s books, in the works of Sarah Lotz and Chris Marnewick and Roger Smith – to name the crime writers that Godinho didn’t mention. I haven’t yet read Smith’s latest, Dust Devils, but picked it up and at random came across these paragraphs which I would call critical of our health policies and hospitals:

Zondi felt dizzy. Shut his eyes for a moment, blocking out the sunlight that blasted in at him through the windows of the hospital corridor. Had to steady himself against the wall. Took a breath and got a lungful of disinfectant and the bitter smell of death and disease.

All around him were wasted men and women in candy-striped pyjamas. Shuffling along the corridor with thousand–yard stares. Slumped on benches. On the floor. In wheelchairs. Gaunt, hollow cheeked. Skins patterned with lesions. Coughing through lips gummed by yeast infections think as churned butter.

South Africa has the highest rate of HIV in the world…

Charge No 2: ‘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.’

For the defence: In Deon Meyer’s Devil’s Peak, Thobela Mpayipheli, is driven by a failure in the justice system to exact his own very bloody revenge. Then there is Sarah Lotz’s look at how rape is handled by the criminal justice system in her Exhibit A – a damning indictment indeed. Sifiso Mzobe’s portrait of Umlazi in Young Blood is hardly passive: he presents lives out of control as a result of their social conditions. In fact, the contrast between conditions in the townships and the suburbs is a constant in most of the crime fiction.

Charge No 3: ‘In such an extraordinary country, where is the criticism, the exploration of some things we’d rather not talk about?’

For the defence: It will take a more thorough reading of the crime novels to answer this question but a quick list of some of the themes covered to date: people trafficking; organ trafficking, the brutality of the ganglands, the appalling conditions inside our prisons, the political ramifications of the apartheid state in the current politics; tenderpreneurship; government corruption; corruption in big business; the failures in the justice system, the drug industry, money laundering, the arms scandal, arms trading, blood diamonds, fraud, illegal property schemes, paedophilia, the Samora Machel air crash, the demoralised state of the police force, farm murders, hijackings, abalone poaching, organised crime, illegal trade in wildlife. I’ll rest my case there M’Lord.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Maya</a>
    September 29th, 2011 @10:57 #

    I must agree with you, Mike, I do think SA crime fiction tackles our country's issues head-on. There are a lot of very brave crime writers around!

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    September 29th, 2011 @12:30 #

    Seconded, Maya.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Mack</a>
    September 29th, 2011 @14:52 #

    Mike, one of the reasons I'm such a passionate reader of SA crime fiction is that it does tackle serious, complicated, multi-faceted issues and does it well. Roger Smith's books are excellent, fast paced thrillers but also provide an unblinking look at problems facing SA today. I refer to Dust Devils especially. Your revenge trilogy touches upon corruption in defense appropriations which I believe has been in the news lately. I just finished Margie Orford's Like Clockwork and it certainly provides a sobering look at the exploitation of women as does Jassy Mackenzie's Stolen Lives.

    I do appreciate Thorne raising a provocative issue because it can generate interesting and informative discussion.

  • Elizabeth Fletcher
    Elizabeth Fletcher
    September 29th, 2011 @22:25 #

    I agree with all of the above and I think it's been in our crime writers' blood for a long time. I'm still moved by the bravery of 'Store Up the Anger' by Ebersohn.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    September 30th, 2011 @00:33 #

    Right behind you, Mike. An excellent case for the defence.


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