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Crime Beat

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Crime Beat: Charles Cilliers’s Top 10 SA krimis

 A rough count puts the number of SA crime novels published in English since 2006 as somewhere north of 70 books. For someone coming fresh to this outpouring, deciding what to read first could be a little daunting. Which is where those top 10 lists come in useful.

 Last year book reviewer and author Charles Cilliers came up with his top 10 krimis for City Press – what he called the best of a “spate of brilliant crime fiction by local authors set in SA”. Now, while top 10s are handy, they are also contentious and will soon have people saying, but what about? So Crime Beat decided to get a second opinion by asking Jonathan Amid to compile his “best of” list. Why Jonathan Amid? Well, he is rapidly emerging as the major authority on the SA crime novel both as an academic and as a reviewer. But more about that tomorrow.

 Until then here is refresher of Charles Cilliers’s list to set the scene:

1. Coldsleep Lullaby: Andrew Brown, Zebra Press. Brown tells two stories set in Stellenbosch. One is in the present, the other in the 17th century. In the present day, detective Eberard Februarie investigates the case of a young woman’s body found drifting in a river. He has problems of his own, but is soon pulled into a surprising underworld of sexual hedonism in the sleepy university town. The tale from the Dutch settler past, about a cruel, slave-owning wine maker who takes an unhealthy interest in the Boorman family’s daughter, sets in motion events that connect, centuries later, with Februarie’s case. The depictions of the past are detailed and convincing and Brown captures the flavour of modern South Africa perfectly too.

2. Young Blood: Sifiso Mzobe, Kwela. This celebrated novel about “young blood” Sipho tells the South African crime story from the point of view of a criminal in the making. Avoiding some of the more obvious clichés, Sipho comes from a relatively good home in Umlazi, KwaZulu-Natal, but gets pulled into crime because of his desire for fast cars, easy money and even easier girls. The sometimes-uneven story is saved by gripping depictions of the full tapestry of criminal life – from township desperation to freewheeling suburban druglords. It makes understanding why Sipho’s struggle to pull free from gangsterism is so difficult and the road he must walk to do so all the more heroic.

3. Black Heart: Mike Nicol, Umuzi. Nicol’s crime trilogy concludes with this book about Sheemina February’s quest for revenge against Mace Bishop – an ex-freedom fighter, arms dealer and intelligence operative-turned partner with Pylon Buso in a security company. In the first novel, Payback, the gritty tone of this Cape Town-based crime novel is established, with Bishop and Buso setting up a VIP security company before being pulled into a confrontation in the city’s gangland. In the second book, the stakes rise with February’s attempts to torment them for torturing her during interrogation during apartheid. Nicol’s characters are all rarely sympathetic in the traditional sense, washed through with fatal flaws and shameful pasts, but the plotting and storytelling keeps one glued to what each one’s ultimate fate might be.

4. The Murder of Norman Ware: Rosamund Kendal, Jacana. Quirky and utterly unique, this darkly humorous novel cleverly weaves together the stories of 21 people living on a golf estate near Durban to arrive at the real reason why Advocate Norman Ware ends up mutilated and murdered in the men’s bathroom. Kendal’s huge cast become a microcosm of all the weird extremes in South Africa, from a muti-making sangoma to a philandering plastic surgeon, a serial killer who targets young girls, a snake-fearing recluse, a corrupt businessman and the likeable, doomed advocate himself. Detective De Villiers must see through the treacherous residents’ many lies to reveal a striking truth about fate, coincidence and synchronicity. Great fun.

5. Seven Days: Deon Meyer, Tafelberg. Meyer, whose books are translated from Afrikaans, has been one of South African crime fiction’s greatest exports. His by-now established Cape Town detective Benny Griessel’s ability to solve crimes with bulldog tenacity and surprising intuition is generally hampered only by his drinking problem. In anyone but Meyer’s hands, he would have been a sure cliché, but Meyer makes him feel authentic. Hardboiled, masculine and brutal, Seven Days is the easiest to get into in the Griessel series and tells the story of a killer demanding that an (almost-impossible-to-solve) case be solved and, if it’s not, he will kill a cop every day until it is. Benny spends seven days trying to stay ahead of the storm, resulting in a gripping, against-the-clock read that is impossible to put down.

6. Random Violence: Jassy McKenzie, Umuzi. The first of the popular series of the PI Jade de Jongh novels, Random Violence was published when carjackings were rife in SA and high on the media agenda. McKenzie tells the story of one victim, Annette Botha, shot twice, who police suspect was murdered by her husband. The complex character of De Jongh begins to be told upon her return to Joburg after a decade spent away, recovering from the death of her father. She begins working with her father’s former assistant, Superintendent David Patel, who has risen up the ranks after the fall of apartheid. Together, they piece together a pattern in the carjackings that starts to reveal a money-making empire – while shedding light on why De Jongh’s father died.

7. Capture: Roger Smith, Serpent’s Tail. Smith has rose to prominence since 2009 for writing the bleakest, most remorseless, realistic and graphically brutal crime fiction in South Africa. His characters are almost always deeply damaged, trapped in near irredeemable cycles of violence, but they are relatable and unforgettable, displaying the darker side of human nature. In Capture, an unhappy Cape Town couple’s child drowns while private security expert Vernon Saul watches, doing nothing, just waiting to see how things pan out. The parents descend into self-recrimination and hatred, becoming steadily ensnared by the manipulative, murderous Vernon. Despite the chilling premise, Smith somehow finds a way to give some of these lost souls a taste of redemption.

8. Like Clockwork: Margie Orford, Jonathan Ball. The book that kicked off the brilliant criminal-profiling, investigative journalist Dr Clare Hart series. A serial killer is arranging the bodies of young girls in grotesque poses in Cape Town. By the start of the book, Hart is already well on her way to exposing a human trafficking ring that will turn out to be the key to catching the killer. Orford skilfully avoids lingering for too long on the gore of the murders, choosing instead to tease constantly with her character back stories, particularly the death of Hart’s twin sister. She writes convincingly about the local sex industry, exploring the overwhelming power of the Cape’s gangland culture and shows rare sympathy for the unenviable job of being a South African cop. The fifth book in the series, Water Music, is out this month.

9. Red Ink: Angela Makholwa, Pan Macmillan. Apparently, with this 2007 book, Makholwa became the first black female South African crime writer, but has since been joined by others, such as Liberian-born, Cape Town-native, HJ Golakai. Behind some of Red Ink’s often rough editing is a compelling story about single mom Lucy Khambule. A former journalist working as a PR consultant, she’s contacted by convicted serial killer Napoleon Dingiswayo, who is in C-Max and wants her to write his biography. But the killer’s brother is even more sinister and remains on the prowl. The book sizzles in a sexy, jazzy Joburg setting, and her new crime thriller (out next month), Black Widow Society, about a woman’s support group that murders errant husbands, looks even better.

10. Exhibit A: Sarah Lotz, Penguin. Lotz has long been a rising star in genre fiction in South Africa and this book is a great introduction to anyone unfamiliar with her clever, witty style. She uses it well to cut through the harshness of this book’s rape theme, which centres on a rapist cop. Cape Town lawyer George Allen starts to investigate the case, which takes him to Barryville, a small town in the Klein Karoo. With him is advocate Patrick McLennan, who acts like a “total and utter bastard” to make up for being short, and a scruffy dog called Exhibit A, considered to be the only “witness” to the crime. Lotz’s memorable characters will leave you with more than just a smile and will have you reaching for the George Allen sequel, Tooth and Nailed.


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