CSI: South Africa

No, the title of this column does not mean that someone in South Africa has plagiarized that globally popular U.S. stable of television series. Nor am I analyzing the state of forensics in this country. This is rather a “crime scene investigation” of a wholly literary type: the dramatic rise in quantity and quality of the crime fiction that has emerged in post-1994 South Africa.

Before this country’s democratic transition, the crime novel had been a very small part of South African fiction output. Though crime featured in both mainstream and genre fiction, few authors were identified with the genre, except perhaps for the journalist James McClure. But he had already relocated to Oxford in the United Kingdom by the start of his career.

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But today crime has become a central genre of South African popular fiction. Outstanding among the emerging crime authors, with works published and translated internationally, are Margie Orford, Deon Meyer, Andrew Brown, Jassy Mackenzie, Angela Makholwa and Mike Nicol. Their works depict gritty worlds of criminality and conspiracy, featuring interesting riffs on the standard police officer and private eye personas against backgrounds where serial killers and organized crime syndicates butt heads with the labyrinthine and often corrupt politics of contemporary South Africa.

In these crime stories, the heroes are complex, often flawed characters: journalists with traumatized pasts, misfit police officers or disgraced former cops, even—in Nicol’s case—former guerrillas turned private security consultants with a tendency to mete out rough justice. There are similarly grim subtexts.

Orford’s Clare Hart novels have as a recurring theme violence against women, an all-too-real phenomenon. Makholwa writes from within the world of the young, new black middle class struggling to find its way amid apartheid’s legacy and the lures of crime and political corruption. The pervasiveness of organized crime and its real or perceived ties to politics feature significantly in Meyer’s books and emerge overtly in Nicol’s “Revenge” trilogy.

The novels of the lawyer and reserve police officer Andrew Brown combine a strongly literary tone, addressing political issues (like racism and xenophobia) head on, along with classical crime fiction tropes of whodunit, why-they-dunnit and the hero at risk. The success of Brown’s combination of genre and literary fiction can be measured by the fact that his Coldsleep Lullaby won the 2006 Sunday Times Literary Award, the nation’s most prestigious prize for fiction.

Why, one might ask, is this genre so successful in today’s South Africa? First, one sees an ideological shift in the South African literary scene since the early 1990s. The pressure is off writers to make their work into anti-apartheid political discourse.

For some critics, the crime genre’s current popularity is an expression of a new political concern, rooted in the sense that democracy, human rights and social justice have not taken root yet. But many contemporary writers would deny the view that crime fiction is the political fiction of present-day South Africa. When I made that proposal at a book festival in Johannesburg a few years ago, I was politely but firmly put in my place.

And yet....

Though authorial views should be respected, on another level it is hard to deny an underlying “politics” in the new South African crime novels that could be the reason for their popularity. Granted that they are primarily what Graham Greene used to call entertainments, in their content these novels echo current events and real South African fears—of crime and violence, of corrupt politicians and police, of genuine insecurity where anarchy is the reverse image of order, raw power that of human rights. This is not political fiction as explicit social critique or offering new visions of governance, but it remains highly political nonetheless.

If one reflects on the logic and structure of the crime novel or thriller—a “normal” context deeply disordered by the crime, the protagonists forced out of relative comfort into crisis, leading to a resolution, however temporary or precarious—we may well be talking about day-to-day life in South Africa. The political intrudes in the private. South Africa’s new generation of crime writers reminds us of that.

Which is why we read them.

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