A short history of SA crime fiction

A short history of SA crime fiction 1
SA Crime Fiction (Pic by Max Kleinen on Unsplash)

Despite the vibrancy of thriller and crime fiction elsewhere, not much has happened in SA crime fiction over the last five decades. Until the 2000s. This wasn’t exactly surprising as the cops have been more or less an invading army in the eyes of most of the citizenry since forever. Certainly, come the apartheid state in the late 1940s no self-respecting writer (with the exception of James McClure’s satirical cop novels) was going to set up with a cop as the main protagonist of a series. It was akin to sleeping with the enemy.

In the 1950s

So to get round this, in the late 1950s, a young woman named June Drummond (who died in June 2011) found a way to enter the genre with a novel called The Black Unicorn that used an amateur sleuth to solve the mystery. Recent searches by academics have found that Drummond’s novel was far from the first crime novel in English to be published in SA. Indeed there were a number of earlier titles that could be included under the broad generic of ‘crime fiction’. Interestingly, The Black Unicorn came just four years after a popular magazine, Drum, that had a vibrant readership in the townships, ran a series of short stories featuring a character called the Chief. The author, Arthur Maimane, was hugely influenced by the US pulps and the stories were derivative but highly entertaining. Unfortunately they’ve never been collected although there is one to be found in the Crime Beat archives.

In Afrikaans crime fiction also took decades to reach maturity. During the 1950s there’d been cheaply printed novels featuring steak-loving, hat-wearing detectives investigating single murders. Often these stories were set in small towns and tended more towards pulp fiction than noir. After that Afrikaans crime fiction all but disappeared during the height of the apartheid era. But there were some notable exceptions in the works of Chris Moolman and two novels by Harry Kalmer. Both authors were more or less ignored by the critics, although, they built up individual cult followings.

In English the thriller side of the genre was taken up by, most notably, Wilbur Smith and Geoffrey Jenkins, during the 1960s but it was not until the end of that decade that a major figure emerged – James McClure with a novel called The Steam Pig. This book introduced two cops, Tromp Kramer and Mickey Zondi. They would feature in a series that spanned the 1970s, disappeared for the 1980s, and finally ended with a prequel in 1993, The Song Dog. McClure’s twosome have gone some way to setting a convention for SA writers: the clever underling Zondi, the unsubtle Tromp with his built-in racism. In fact the books were highly satiric yet only one was banned, The Sunday Hangman. McClure died in 2006, after spending most of his life in the UK in Oxford.

In the 1980s

McClure’s absence during the 1980s was filled by a different sort of crime thriller, a series written by Wessel Ebersohn, featuring a prison psychologist Yudel Gordon as the protagonist. Ebersohn published five Gordon novels up to 1991. The 1990s, however, were to see a number of changes, not least the change in the country to a democracy with the 1994 general election that ended the apartheid state. Overnight, well, almost overnight, the cops became the good guys and our literature started taking on a different perspective (for a while, at least). But it takes some time for a country to mature and give itself permission to write and read escapist books, especially as we’d been used to writing and reading as an act of protest.

The genre today

For the current crime thriller writers, the 1990s were significant because of a man called Deon Meyer. His novels first appeared in Afrikaans and made it to the top of Afrikaans best-seller lists. For the first time here were novels on a par with international crime fiction as far as plot sophistication and literary prowess were concerned. One of his novels, Orion (translated as Dead at Daybreak), was successfully transposed by Meyer into a television series – broadening his fan base and that of Afrikaans crime fiction. Meyer not only revolutionised Afrikaans literature but he was well translated into English and these books opened the genre to new voices. All the same it took a number of years – six in fact – before Meyer was joined on his lonely platform.

In 2005 Richard Kunzmann published the first of his Harry Mason and Jacob Tshabalala series, Bloody Harvests, and Andrew Brown won the Sunday Times Fiction Prize for his Coldstream Lullaby – proving that a krimi could out-write the literary reputations. In 2011 the Sunday Times Fiction Prize was again won by a crime/coming-of-age novel, Sifiso Mzobe’s Young Blood. Also new Afrikaans figures appeared: Francois Bloemhof, Piet Steyn, Quintus van der Merwe, Dirk Jordaan, Chanette Paul, and Karin Brynard with her influential Plaasmoord (translated into English as Weeping Waters) among them. They were quickly followed by Irna van Zyl, Irma Venter and Rudie van Rensburg.

The subject of crime

As for the sort of topics that have engaged these writers, well, initially serial killers – or to put it in a broader perspective, crimes of deviancy – were the subjects of choice for both English and Afrikaans writers. Perhaps in this there was a desire to steer away from the political issues dominating a nation in transition although this attitude is changing. Social and political concerns are back on the agenda and the bad guys are now as likely to be politicians, business moguls, and figures of authority as perverts, drug dealers, serial killers and gangsters. And their crimes are as likely to be crimes of deviancy as trade in blood diamonds, abalone poaching, the international drugs trade, arms dealing, political corruption, business scams, scandals and fraud, private security, and the hijacking of buildings.

Significantly, state crimes began to feature and forms of espionage fiction became apparent in some of Meyer’s books (Trackers being an obvious example) and also in the work of Trevor R Corbett, and the more literary foray into that territory by Carel van der Merwe with his novel, Shadow. If there is a forerunner to these novels it is Andrew Gray’s 2007, The Fence. Critics also began to suggest that crime novels could be seen as the new version of the political novel. Riding well out in the front as a major issue is the ineffectiveness of due process and the satisfaction of moral justice. But that’s a major theme anywhere in the world. And it’s also a truism applicable to South Africa that if you want to know the country read its crime fiction. You’ll get the low-down and enjoy the ride.

Unfortunately over the last five years SA crime fiction in English has slipped back into the shadows although Afrikaans crime fiction has thundered ahead with some of the writers being translated into English. But there are still new voices to be heard and the genre is far from moribund.

Critical works and other matters

For a full account of the works published prior to Drummond, McClure and Ebersohn read Elizabeth le Roux’s essay: South African Crime and Detective Fiction in English: A Bibliography and Publishing History

For a thorough survey of South African crime fiction see Sam Naidu and Elizabeth le Roux’s  A Survey of South African Crime Fiction: Critical Analysis and Publishing History (2017), UKZN Press.

Sabine Binder has written a study of female victims, perpetrators and detectives in SA crime fiction which can be reached at this link.

For those interested in the academic debates that have surfaced around South African crime fiction here are links to the main discussions:

On SliPNET by Leon de Kock: Roger Smith and the ‘genre snob’ debate

On LitNet by Anneke Rautenbach: Crime fiction in South Africa: the history, the hype and the “genre snob” debate

Three extracts from Life is a Thriller: Investigating African Crime Fiction, edited by Anja Oed and Christine Matzke, and published by Rudiger Koppe Verlag. Extract One. Extract Two. Extract Three.

The publication of true crime has also been on the rise in recent years. This story gives an insight into the state of play as of October 2013 with interviews with some of the authors.

In addition crime movies are beginning to make a break-through on the international circuit. This story gives a brief outline of the SA krimi movie genre as of March 2014 with interviews with four directors.

© Mike Nicol, 2021