••• The International Writers Magazine: Crime Fiction
“The only thing that's fair about me is the colour of my hair. People should remember that.” Kramer (McClure)
Preparing for class this week I decided to re-acquaint myself with a couple of crime novels on my shelf. I used to pride myself that I could remember books if I enjoyed them, but even though these were favourites, it seems I remembered nothing and that’s great because that means I can re-read a whole lot of books with the same surprise and anticipation as the first time around. Either that or face up to Alzheimer’s I guess.
Both novels were crime fiction from South Africa. One it makes a change from the endless pile from America and I have a hankering to Cape Town soon – despite the incredible and very real crime stats that make life very precarious for many indeed.
The Song Dog by James H McClure (Faber paperback 1991) was the last Kramer and Zondi novel, (although in fact it is a prequel and set before all the others to show how the two cops teamed up.) McClure was a Scot, but born in South Africa, a crime writer for the Natal Daily News. Before that he worked as a commercial photographer with the writer Tom Sharpe. He emigrated to England in '65 and worked on the Oxford Times before writing fiction full time.
He brought a fantastic sense of realism to Natal Crime writing and it’s going to be shocking for the snowflake generation to read one as it pulls no punches on the racial attitudes of South African Afrikaner cops back in the days of apartheid. But you could read all the literary work you like about those times; McClure captured the real language and attitudes of the time. Kramer is part of his culture, a good cop with a bolshie attitude. Zondi, a Bantu Detective Sergeant literate, smart, witty is an affectionate glimpse of what future educated Africans could be, if only someone would allow it and recognise their talents.
The language and attitudes are shocking in modern PC parlance, but they accurately reflect the times and the pace is strong. The sex scene is visceral, the violence normal, the wariness of the Dectective baffled by the evidence universal. This is raw crime fiction at its best. I’d forgotten how gripping his fiction was. McClure died in 2006.
I was keen to contrast The Song Dog with Deon Meyer’s first crime novel ‘Dead before Dying’ 1996. An Afrikaans author from the Cape, he worked in PR for Sanlam and later BMW motorcycles. He, like McClure brings social realism to his fiction. His cops are damaged goods right from the start.
Captain Mat Joubert is a heavy smoker, a lunk of a man with a broken heart because his undercover cop wife was murdered two years before. He carries his misery around with him to the detriment of his duties. He only has one person who still believes in him and that is Detective Benny Griessel, a drunk, once a good cop given into the bottle demons.
Dead before Dying is set at the beginning of ANC taking over the country and their appointees being parachuted in to kick ass and change racist attitudes. A tough challenge for cops used to a completely different regime, who daily face horrific murders in the Cape.
Mat and his colleagues see themselves as dinosaurs now and the portrayal of them struggling with personal tragedies and changed political climate is emotionally charged. Like McClure, Meyer has an eye for detail, whether it’s the hard slog of trying to quit smoking and eat healthily or reconnect with humanity, the pain of everyday existence lays alongside the hunt for a killer with an ancient Mauser blowing holes in seemingly random people. The problem with having no connections is there has to be a connection!
Meyer brings us the modern, ever violent South Africa, where somehow everyone tries to live normal lives and get by. This novel and the Benny Griessel series of novels that follow later evolve to reflect the disullusionment with present SA politics and rampant corruption. His cops are totems for the changes and reflect the frustration with how power corrupts. The blood on the pavement is real, the howls of anguish echo acoss the sprawling suburbs.
Crime fiction is about character. I think, right from Raymond Chandler on, we read them for the insights into our human condition, the taut pithy descriptions of the characters as they investigate each one, follow up hopeless leads, the stolen moments of sex, the frailty of a detective’s life, the evil drink and the trail of ruined relationships they leave behind.
These cops all know South Africa should be better than it is and still could be – all that separates it from chaos is them and they know all too well that it isn’t enough.
© Sam Hawksmoor Feb 2017
Read Another Place to Die: Endtime Chronicles
Deon Meyer’s latest novel is Fever (Koors) set in a small Karoo town of Vanderkloof due April 2017
Dead before Dying was filmed by a German TV company in 2015 as a six part series and the plot seems to have changed substantially and it is now called ‘Cape Town’ - seek 'Cape Town' Trailer on Youtube
more about fiction