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Crime Beat

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Crime Beat: The politics of crime fiction

Recently, at the massive crime fiction festival in Lyon, the Quais du Polar, there was frequent discussion on the crime novel and politics. Not long ago crime novelists would have fought shy of any mention of political content in their novels but those days seem to be over.

Picking up on the theme Val McDermid*, one of the grandees at the festival, wrote in The Guardian that she and Ian Rankin (also at the festival) believed that given “the current preoccupations of the crime novel, the roman noir, the krimi” [it leans] to the left. It’s critical of the status quo, sometimes overtly, sometimes more subtly. It often gives a voice to characters who are not comfortably established in the world – immigrants, sex workers, the poor, the old. The dispossessed and the people who don’t vote”.

She went on to argue that the thriller tended towards the right “because the threat implicit in the thriller is the world turned upside down, the idea of being stripped of what matters to you. And as Bob Dylan reminds us, ‘When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose’”.

Her position was rapidly countered by thriller writer Jonathan Freedland** in the same newspaper.

“Consider the supreme master of the spy thriller, John le Carré. His cold war novels stood against the mindless jingoism of the period, resisting the Manichean equation of east-west with evil-good. In the last decade, Le Carré has mercilessly exposed the follies of the war on terror, probing deep into the web of connections that ties together finance, politics and the deep state. The older he gets, the more Le Carré seems to be tearing away at the establishment and its secret, complacently amoral ways.

“And that kind of fury is typical of the fuel that burns through many thrillers. This is a genre whose most frequent theme is injustice: the urge to right a wrong, even if that means, to adapt Val McDermid’s words, turning the world upside down.”

What does all this mean to the crime novelist in SA?

Our position is an interesting one. Deon Meyer, Andrew Brown and Karin Brynard have written police procedurals with protagonists who are signed-up cops. In other words, civil servants of the state. Of the other writers Jassy Mackenzie, Margie Orford and Michele Rowe have gone for a partnership between the PI and the cops, whereas Roger Smith, with the exception of the bit roles played by his cop Zondi, tends to focus on the horrors of gangsters and gangland – an area where violence occurs without state interference, where the cops are absent. In other words, thrillers by McDermid’s definition, but does this make him right wing?

My own choice was first to avoid the procedural and the PI and to place characters in the security business and then to move into the PI realm. There is much sense in Woody Haut’s contention in his discussion of US crime fiction, Neon Noir, that, “…private-eye fiction always seems to flourish in periods of, or immediately following, government secrecy, duplicity and paranoia”.

This pretty much describes our political situation. Given this condition my own occupations are to combine the crime novel and the espionage novel – the thriller – which places them where on the political spectrum? To be honest I’m not sure it matters. The position of the writer in South Africa has long been one of antagonism towards government. Again today when politicians are not to be trusted, when government is arrogant, when the state teeters towards failure – given the Eskom situation and the ripple effect of this through the economy, a health sector in crisis, an education system that is held to ransom by a teachers’ union – the crime novel and the thriller offer opportunities to question and satirise the rampant corruption, greed, incompetence, criminality, inadequacy, the list could go on that distinguishes the Zuma government.

Some reviewers have pointed at the SA crime novel as a political novel, and certainly it is that, it offers a more cogent critique of the state than any other genre. Roger Smith has said that South African crime novels are “sadly, now probably the most relevant” novels being written here. It’s an interesting observation. I don’t think it is strictly true but then I don’t think that we have the luxury of the British distinctions between the krimi and thriller genres either.

*Val McDermid’s article
** Jonathan Freedland’s article



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