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Crime Beat

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Crime Beat: Extract 1 from Life is a Thriller

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’”[1] 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“.[2] 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.[3]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;[4] 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,[5]

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.

Works cited

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.

[1]              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.

[2]              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.

[3]              For early examples see Lindfors 1994 and Ezenwa-Ohaeto 1995.

[4]              The paper Joubert presented at the symposium was published in theSouth African Journal of African Languages; see Joubert 2010.

[5]              We wish to thank Oladipo Agboluaje for drawing our attention to this website.


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