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Crime Beat

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Crime Beat: Durban’s ganglands

by any meansJonathan Amid takes a look at a new novel set in Durban’s ganglands. Like Sifiso Mzobe’s Young Blood, Kurt Ellis’s By Any Means is more a coming of age novel than a krimi. But what the heck! Crime features so it earns a place in the local pantheon. But what’s it about Durban and young hoods?

Kurt Ellis was born in Sydenham, Durban, but left after high school to pursue greener pastures in Johannesburg. By Any Means, his debut novel, took all of sixteen years from conception to publication this year. It is a highly commendable well-written bildungsroman that has echoes of S.E Hinton’s The Outsiders, which was incidentally also a novel Hinton started working on at the tender age of fifteen. While Sifiso Mzobe’s Young Blood was lauded as a crime fiction novel in many circles, it is in fact far more of a bildungsroman in my view, and I feel that By Any Means is both less problematic and ambiguous in its treatment of criminality and venality, and arguably more moving, precisely because it embraces the bildungsroman form so confidently, familiar and well-worn though its tenets may be.

By Any Means, in just over 200 pages, hones in on the lives three young men, Kyle, and his cousins Captain and Jimmy. Kyle is the one with the bright future ahead of him, the twinkle in his eye and the possibility of playing soccer for an overseas club. He is ambitious in his attempts to be the best player he can be, but is also studious, being a great fan of the Shakespeare he reads at school. By contrast, Jimmy and Captain, like brothers to Kyle, live an altogether different kind of life. “By any means necessary”, their grandfather’s beloved expression, they hustle and move in the circles of the criminal underworld in Sydenham, head honchos in the Godfathers gang. While regularly reminding Kyle and others that they never wanted the gang life for themselves, they are certainly determined to make the most of the opportunities that come their way. Trouble is, these opportunities come at great cost to their gang rivals, and, inevitably, something has got to give.

As By Any Means hurtles towards its unsurprisingly tragic conclusion, the reader is swept along into a credibly rendered, colourful world, one that, however, is never embellished to the point where it glorifies crime or violence by any means. There is a very real sense that the writer is genuinely passionate about the anti-crime story he wants to tell, and this earnestness comes across without turning the novel into a morality play or extended sermon. The charismatic Captain is written with the minimum of excessive bravado, and a lot of empathy, ditto for Jimmy, while Kyle is the reader’s emotional navigator, a focaliser for the trepidations and possibilities of youth, truthfully captured throughout. Some of the dialogue is a little clunky here and there, and a few scenes overstay their welcome, but these minor flaws are overshadowed by a strong sense of place, plenty of momentum and feeling in the writing, and a resounding sense of place, to add to the strong characterization. Ellis also employs Shakespeare quite artfully in this passion project, one that is certainly worth reading.


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