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Top 10 SA krimis

A rough count puts the number of SA crime novels published in English since 2006 at somewhere north of 70 books. For someone coming fresh to this outpouring, deciding where to start reading 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 useful, they are also contentious and will soon have people saying, but what about? So Crime Beat got a second opinion from University of Stellenbosch academic and reviewer, Jonathan Amid.

Here is his list followed by that of Charles Cilliers:

10- The Caterpillar Cop (James McClure) Widely hailed as the “father” of South African crime fiction, McClure published a string of superbly crafted, subtle novels, of which The Caterpillar Cop is no exception. Although some of his other works may be better known (here I’m thinking of The Steam Pig, The Gooseberry Fool, Snake, The Sunday Hangman and Song Dog), McClure’s writing is never better as he exposes the fatal flaws that underpinned the overarching socio-political system of apartheid, none more so than the dehumanization of persons of colour. The Caterpillar Cop is so utterly compelling because of the ways in which it matches a stellar plot and plentiful intrigue with a most memorable pairing of crime fighters in “Bantu detective” Zondi” and Sergeant Tromp Kramer. Their unlikely partnership allows McClure to expose the hypocrisy and Janus-faced nature of apartheid during its heyday, to turn a variety of cultural stereotypes on their head, and to offer a lasting model for later writers to (re)turn to. McClure’s influence and legacy simply cannot be overemphasized.

9- Divide the Night (Wessel Ebersohn) If McClure was the father of crime fiction in South Africa, then Wessel Ebersohn, with his insightful, sometimes brutal investigation of apartheid state apparatuses, is certainly next in line. Although he has published a number of post-apartheid crime novels, Ebersohn is best known for his searing early 1980s efforts such as Divide the Night. Spearheaded by the “detection” of psychologist Yudel Gordon, a man both incredibly principled and easy to relate to, Ebersohn marries genre convention to pointed social critique: the result is a singular, angry, forceful embodied of all that was wrong with the thinking that animated apartheid. A must read.

8- Heart of the Hunter (Deon Meyer) Meyer is probably our biggest proponent of South African crime fiction both locally and abroad, and it’s all too simple to see why. With an unmatched dexterity in creating thrilling narratives that weave interconnected stories, fascinating, three-dimensional characters, head-spinning moral dilemmas and colorful, creative dialogue, Meyer’s Heart of the Hunter stands out amongst a fantastic body of work (Blood Safari, Devil’s Peak, Thirteen Hours and 7Days are the most exceptional, although you can’t go wrong with any Meyer novel). Heart of the Hunter offers a mythical, magical protagonist in Thobela ‘Tiny’ Mpayipheli and a crackerjack chase narrative that exploits post-apartheid anxieties and the conflict between old loyalties and new aspirations, while offering a wide range of philosophical explications about the nature of man, the violence in men’s hearts and the need to belong. Meyer’s writing has rarely been as muscular, his sense of pacing more adroit, his sense of atmosphere and occasion overwhelming and his conflicts gripping, than with this genre-bending master class in suspense.

7- Daddy’s Girl (Margie Orford) If Meyer’s police procedural mantle is ever shaky it is in the presence of the “queen” of local crime fiction, Margie Orford. Highly erudite and not afraid to speak her mind, Orford’s fictional output takes the form of an extended investigation through genre into the roots, causes and conditions of violence against women. Daddy’s Girl was written as a kind of prequel to Orford’s striking debut, Like Clockwork, which first introduced the pairing of journalist and profiler Dr Clare Hart with hardboiled Muslim Detective Riedwaan Faizal. In a heart-stopping race against time, the pair must rescue the detective’s young daughter, all the while that he is suspected of being involved in her kidnapping. Gritty, gruelling and with more ghoulish gangsters than you can shake a stick at, Orford’s spare writing and haunting turns of phrase make for an unforgettable marriage to such harrowing material. The explosive tension between Hart and Faizal is palpable, too, and perhaps most importantly, the novel never feels like an exploitative or pornographically violent exercise, but engages heart, mind and gut on equal footing. Our best female crime writer.

6- What Hidden Lies (Michele Rowe) As densely woven and consistently intense as any of the crime fiction texts to emerge from this country in the last decade, What Hidden Lies is a debut that goes straight for the jugular. Dealing with both crimes of the present and past, and the myriad ways in which they can be connected, Rowe pairs up the criminologist/psychologist Marge Labuschagne with rookie Detective Persephone Jonas. These two women, forging a bond as they make sense of various atrocities, are confronted with racism, sexism, male chauvinism, corruption, environmental degradation, emotional and physical blackmail, suspected paedophilia, murder, assault, gangsters, charlatans, nosy parkers, and the list goes on and on. Sound convoluted? Well, Rowe is an expert at balancing such a wide range of interests and threats with a variety of touching and well-rounded characters and relationships between very different people, most notable between Persy and Marge. She also unveils an acidic, coal-black sense of humour and a real feel for the patois of those that people this most impressive work.

5- The Cutting Room (Mary Watson) Watson is an expert short story writer, and her sinister and unsettling attempt at writing a novel about crime and the way it functions rather than a more conventional crime thriller earns her a deserved spot on this list. The less said about the novel’s marriage of domestic terrors and ghostly horrors from outside the home the better, as the novel goes in a variety of diverse and interesting directions that bring the whole category of the crime novel into question, no mean feat for any writer. Having a “cutter” or editor as protagonist allows Watson to reflect on the ways in which (crime) stories work and can be told. Watson’s eye for ominous detail, her metafictional mode of enquiry into a miscellany of crimes and criminals and her unique look at the “postcard” city of Cape Town make The Cutting Room a coruscating and cathartic read.

4- Tooth and Nailed (Sarah Lotz) Although Lotz’s Exhibit A is a tad more dramatic perhaps, her exemplary Tooth and Nailed cements the author at the top of her game when producing offbeat, quirky and utterly hilarious crime fiction for the thinking man and woman. Although plot drivers are traditionally particularly strong in the local variation of the genre, Lotz places paramount importance on character, mood and setting, resulting in a work that is achingly, joyously and often uproariously funny and entertaining. Once you’ve encountered the beleaguered lawyer and part-time used car salesman Georgie Allen and the unforgettable Scottish advocate Patrick McLennan, aka the Poison Dwarf, who move from one riotous case to the next, you will be left begging for more.

3- Counting the Coffins (Diale Thlolwe) After the excellent and unusual Ancient Rites, South Africa’s first magical realist-style murder mystery mixing tradition and modernity, Thlolwe’s fascinating conversation with the hard-boiled masters Chandler, Hammett and Moseley continued with Counting the Coffins. Thlolwe pulls no punches as his Detective Thabang Maje trawls the streets of the Johannesburg metropolis taking stock of corruption, malfeasance and skulduggery, African-style. This is moody, menacing, rollicking stuff, and we might just have found our answer to the likes of Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade. Now, if only we could get Maje to return.

2- Mixed Blood (Roger Smith) Relentless. Graphic. Brutal. Unremitting. As Noir as Noir can be. With his five noir thrillers set in and around the windswept territories of the Cape Flats, Roger Smith has carved out a niche in the market, one that demands extreme commitment and mental toughness from the reader. While some might find his hellish thrillers exceptionally heavy going, and let’s face it, they are certainly no walk in the park, Smith has the courage and writing chops to construct a fast-paced, furious excavation of race relations, miscegenation, power plays and criminal networks based on codes of violence in Mixed Blood that will leave you staggering. If Darwin was from the Cape Flats, and spent some time uncovering the incredible disparities between rich and poor on each side of Table Mountain, Mixed Blood is the novel he would write.

1-      Killer Country (Mike Nicol) Having made quite the dramatic switch from literary fiction to the realm of the hard-boiled noir, Mike Nicol has achieved more than a cult following for his acclaimed Revenge Trilogy: Payback, Killer Country, and Black Heart. While Payback was a stylish sucker punch, a brutal and bellicose beast of a novel that set up the ultimate confrontation between former gunrunners and MK veterans turned security operatives Mace Bishop and Pylon Buso and their victim of torture, the disfigured but beautiful femme fatale Sheemina February, Killer Country just outperforms the final instalment in the trilogy by a whisker. This is because of its hitherto unrivalled status as the occasion where Nicol dramatizes the powerful ability of the crime novel to provide social critique, even while spinning an unbelievably gripping yarn that blurs the boundaries between victim and perpetrator, criminal and common man, law and disorder, crime and punishment, good and evil, right and wrong. If I could recommend only one South African crime novel as an introduction to the genre as it plays out on our shores, Nicol’s Killer Country – spare, sophisticated, smashing – would be it.

Honourable mentions (or the next best ten): Joanne Hichens Out to Score (with Mike Nicol); Jassy Mackenzie Worst Case; Hawa Golakai The Lazarus Effect; Andrew Brown Refuge; Chris Marnewick The Soldier Who Said No; Sifiso Mzobe Young Blood; Peter Church Bitter Pill; Richard Kunzmann Bloody Harvests; Malla Nunn A Beautiful Place To Die; Michael Stanley Death of the Mantis.

The Charles Cilliers list:

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. 7Days: 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: Robert 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.

Amid also drew up a list of top 10 local novels featuring crime, but not necessarily within the genre:

J M Coetzee – Disgrace
Antje Krog – Country of My Skull
Gillian Slovo – Red Dust
K. Sello Duiker – Thirteen Cents
Chris Marnewick – Shepherds and Butchers
Michiel Heyns – Lost Ground
Lauren Beukes – The Shining Girls
Diane Awerbuck – Home Remedies
Henrietta Rose-Innes – Nineveh
Terry Westby-Nunn – The Sea of Wise Insects

And a list of his top 10 crime fiction novels in Afrikaans:

1-      Deon Meyer – Infanta
2-      Deon Meyer –  Orion
3-      Chris Karsten – Abel se Ontwaking
4-      Karin Brynard – Onse Vaders
5-      Karin Brynard – Plaasmoord
6-      Deborah Steinmair – Die Neus
7-      Dirk Jordaan, – Die Jakhalssomer
8-      Piet Steyn – Tou
9-      Francois Bloemhof - Nagbesoeker
10-  Chanette Paul – Dryfhout


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