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Crime Beat

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Crime Beat: The local scene

Michael Stanley (Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip) wrote an afterword to the recently published collection of crime short stories – Bloody Satisfied (edited by Joanne Hichens, published by Burnet Media) – which gives a quick overview of the SA crime fiction scene.

Over the last ten years there has been an explosion of authors writing contemporary crime fiction in South Africa.  How have readers elsewhere in the world reacted to this new and rich perspective on the country?  We have great writers – this collection is evidence enough of that – and a few have made the breakthrough into the international arena.  No easy feat with book markets shaky everywhere.  Our US editor, bemoaning less than stellar sales, told us that Americans aren’t interested in Africa or South America.  But can that be true?  Look at the remarkably popular No1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series.  Surely it is the strong sense of place and culture, as well as the good feelings generated by a simpler and more predictable world, that has made Mma Ramotswe an international favourite.  Alexander McCall Smith was born in Zambia, spent several years in Botswana, and his first book was published in South Africa.  So he is an African author writing about Africa, even though now he lives in Scotland.

The UK has deep historical ties with Africa in many ways, and one of them is crime fiction.  Among the earliest mysteries set in Africa were those of Elspeth Huxley’s Kenya series.  The first serious attempt to focus on South Africa using crime fiction was James McClure’s Kramer and Zondi series written from England during the apartheid years.  (The books have recently been reissued by Soho Crime.)

Although McClure was born in Johannesburg, he wrote his books some time after he’d emigrated to England.  Why did he choose the crime novel as a vehicle to display the situation in South Africa?  McClure had this to say about it in a 1988 interview: “I wanted to write about South Africa in a context which would allow South Africa to become incidental to the story.  Which doesn’t mean it isn’t very much part of the story.  Unlike some other writers about South Africa, I try to make sure that the action is peculiar to that environment and arises out of it.”

His series of novels is set in a fictitious town called Trekkersburg and revolves around the exploits of Lieutenant Tromp Kramer and his assistant, Bantu Detective Sergeant Mickey Zondi.  The relationship between the two men, and their interactions in the verkramte town, do as much to illustrate and denigrate apartheid as the works of many, much bigger name South African writers.  With the crime novel being such a natural way of exposing society and its issues, why were local writers ignoring the genre at the time?  Perhaps they had more serious things to say?  McClure was quite dismissive of that, saying: “That way, you preach to nobody but the converted, usually – or to the so-called intellectual reader.  You’re not reaching the ordinary guy at all.”  In fact, he didn’t enjoy their work (except for Charles Herman Bosman), questioning – among other issues – their lack of humour.  “It’s all as deadly serious as a political meeting.  I always hear laughter as well as sobbing when I recall life in Africa.”

But McClure only recalled life here.  From within South Africa, Wessel Ebersohn wrote three gruelling psychological thrillers exposing the reality of the security police and exploring the nature of evil.  They were initially banned.  Chris Marnewick did so too in his award winning novel Shepherds & Butchers, originally written in Afrikaans.  And the exposé of that grim era through crime fiction continues today with Malla Nunn’s historical crime novels written from Australia.

It was Deon Meyer who took up McClure’s cudgel, using crime fiction set in the post-apartheid era, albeit steeped in its aftermath, to illustrate present day South Africa.  He writes in Afrikaans, and ten years ago in an interview he lamented the isolation of writing in a neglected genre and a parochial language.  But he persevered, and now he has won a slew of prizes, and his novels have been translated into twenty languages.  Over that ten year period there has been an explosion of crime fiction written and set in South Africa, much of it very good.  Deon was joined by Andrew Brown, Wessel Ebersohn (who re-emerged after a long silence), Joanne Hichens, Richard Kunzman, Sarah Lotz, Jassy Mackenzie, Sifiso Mzobe – winner of several awards, including the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa, Mike Nicol, Margie Orford, Roger Smith and several others.  Local readers and critics have been enthusiastic.

Every writer wants recognition and acceptance from his or her home market; usually it’s the readers in that market who can vouch for the reality of the sense of place, the natural behaviour of the characters, the believability of the plot.  (Sometimes an external perspective can be interesting and even successful.  French writer Caryl Férey’s Zulu, set in South Africa, won numerous [French] prizes, but wasn’t that highly regarded here.)  But how is the new wave of crime writing in South Africa to move to the international arena?  Do we even want that to happen?  South Africa has a wonderful flair for mixing languages and concepts that is hard to translate.  But the market here is small.  Writers want to be read and paid enough to make it a profession rather than a hobby.

Deon Meyer is now well-known in the US, and his primary publisher is in the UK.  Roger Smith and Jassy Mackenzie are also building momentum in the US.  They attend mystery book conventions, do book tours and signings, and have been shortlisted for, and won, international awards.  There can be no question that their novels are being well received.  But some of our writers have to rely on the ebook market, as publishers hesitate to take on unknown authors.  The problem is getting known and there is no avoiding author marketing in the forms of meeting readers and doing signings, participating in internet chat groups and blogs, and linking with authors already better known overseas.  The US market is flooded with novels, and there is no doubt that South Africa is struggling to make its voice heard over the volume of excellent European and British writers.  Nevertheless, there is fashion in crime novels just as there is in everything else, and there is some feeling that African crime fiction may be the next fashion.  On our book tours around the US, we have found independent mystery bookstore owners interested in South African crime fiction and keen to find out about other writers and how to obtain their books. Europe is a different story, but Deon Meyer, Roger Smith, and Mike Nicol have their books in the top league in Germany.

When asked in an interview what makes his books transferrable over continents and cultures, Deon Meyer replied, “I think stories are an international language.  Characters too.”  That’s certainly true, but there may be more to it.  Some readers are looking for an understanding of other countries and other cultures.  Sick of the sound bites on television, they turn to fiction that might reflect reality in a more balanced way.  Others are armchair travellers seeking a strong sense of place.  Perhaps the most important group is looking for a style different from that of its own writers.  Think about the wildly successful Scandinavians – Mankell, Nesbo and, of course, Larsson.  The cold seeps into your bones, the darkness seeps into your heart.

Not all readers will want to leave home.  At a Crime Writers Association dinner in London we were asked by an eminent author: “You don’t write stories about wild people, do you?”  In reality, many readers will be intrigued by “wild people” when the story attracts and the writing is good.  We believe it is the lure of new perspectives, new environments and new talents that will bring the overseas readers.  And local is lekker.  Set your books in Southern Africa with its vibrant cultures and interesting locations.  There are a few exceptions, but generally you won’t beat the American authors at their own game by setting your novel in the US.

And what of you, the reader, perhaps meeting the South African literary crime wave for the first time in this book?  It’s only you who can maintain the vibrant crime writing culture that has developed in South Africa.  Read the work of local authors, such as the ones in this collection.  Go out and buy their full-length works.  We think you will find them as good as, or better than, many of the big overseas names.

Michael Stanley

Johannesburg 2013.


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