Crime Fiction, South Africa: A Critical Introduction

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Crime fiction is an emergent category in South African literary studies. This introduction positions South African crime fiction and its scholarship in a global lineage of crime and detective fiction. The survey addresses the question of its literary status as ‘highbrow’ or ‘lowbrow’. It also identifies and describes two distinct sub-genres of South African crime fiction: the crime thriller novel; and the literary detective novel. The argument is that South African crime fiction exhibits a unique capacity for social analysis, a capacity which is being optimised by authors and interrogated by scholars.

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"Taking its cue from Christopher Breu and Elizabeth A. Hatmaker’s rethinking of noir affect as a descriptor of detective fiction, this paper contributes to the discussion of South African writer Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City as a narrative that both harnesses and fluidifies the generic conventions of the crime thriller. Pondering Beukes’s claim that her story may become the site for the transmutation or transmission of ethically adjusted emotion, the paper resorts to Lauren Berlant’s thoughts on detective fiction as a genre condensing the “cruel optimism” of the ordinary, rather than the evental, present to explore the clues of affectional attunement in Lauren Beukes’s postapartheid novel."
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This article aims to contribute to the discussion of English-language crime fiction by black South African writers before 1994 by exploring H.I.E. Dhlomo’s relatively overlooked contribution to the genre in the first decade of apartheid. In particular, I intend to close read three detective stories written between the late 1940s and the early 1950s by Dhlomo, namely “Village Blacksmith Tragicomedy”, “Flowers”, and “Aversion to Snakes”, and compare them with the more celebrated stories published by Arthur Maimane in the popular magazine Drum a few years later. Notwithstanding their different re-elaboration of the tropes of crime fiction, I argue that both Dhlomo and Maimane resorted to this productive strand of popular literature to reassert a claim to knowledge denied to Africans, saturating their texts with new local meanings and exceeding Western genre conventions.
The article considers the concept of ‘home’ and its experiential application in relation to Michiel Heyns’s novel, Lost Ground. A prize-winning novel in South Africa, Lost Ground has taxed interpretation. Is it a detective novel, a novel of ‘gay’ relationships, or a novel of oblique rather than direct political observations on ‘post-apartheid’ South Africa? I argue that the novel is all the above, but tangentially. More centrally, I argue that Lost Ground explores commitment and non-commitment to both a home place and a place of exile; that Heyns is too subtle a novelist to promote an either/or response to a situation which, at least in the narrative, subjects despair to a muted redemption. If the protagonist does not find a home on his ‘home visit,’ neither does he find equanimity in his thoughts of a return to London. Yet, his experience in his brief return to the town of his earlier life grants him fresh insight into his own vulnerability.
This article focuses on how South African crime fiction reflects and critiques the state of the nation. It recapitulates the history of the genre under apartheid, referring particularly to Wessel Ebersohn and James McClure, before reviewing its subsequent development, which is characterized in part by a concern to embrace the social and political problems of post-apartheid society. Taking account of crime statistics, and of the ambivalence some writers feel about their writing in such a violent society, this article illustrates the genre’s engagement with issues like fear of crime, loss of faith in the police, widespread corruption, abuse of women and children, the legacy of colonialism and apartheid, and the complexities of social transition. The success of the work of Angela Makholwa, Deon Meyer, Mike Nicol and Margie Orford lies in the way they reconcile the demands of good entertainment with searching social and psychological insights.
This article aims to examine the portrayal of African migrants and South Africa’s relationship to the African continent in post-apartheid crime fiction. Exotic settings and the figure of the stranger have featured in the crime genre since its emergence in the 19th century. Reading Mike Nicol’s The Ibis Tapestry (1998), his trilogy Payback (2008), Killer Country (2010) and Black Heart (2011), and H.J. Golakai’s novel The Lazarus Effect (2011), this article suggests that the themes of migration and ‘xenophobia’ have become central to reconfigured socio-political commitment in contemporary South African crime fiction. The article argues that the re-writing of generic formulae and boundaries in The Ibis Tapestry and The Lazarus Effect becomes a powerful vehicle for an enquiry into constructions of ‘foreignness’ and a means to allot a space to African migrants in the ‘new’ South African imaginary. The simultaneous unmaking and remaking of ‘African foreignness’ that characterizes the Revenge trilogy draws attention to the paradoxical temporality of transitional literatures and cultural formations, in which former discourses of ‘the foreign’ remain imprinted.
Ad hoc, illegal and invisible links between the coasts and countries of the Indian Ocean persist in the late 20th and 21st centuries. These can be discerned, from the perspective of South Africa, through a reading of their fictional traces. Rather than considering the more established canon of South African Indian writing, which elaborates familial and migratory links to south Asia, I discuss connections of illegality that appear in the resurging genre of South African crime fiction. Trevor Corbett’s Allegiance (2012) and Mike Nicol and Joanne Hichens’ Out to Score (2009) map Durban and Cape Town, respectively, as deeply oceanic, port-dominated cities, connected through networks of smuggling and terror to distant Indian Ocean coasts. They reveal the flip side to the Indian Ocean carceral archipelago – networks of crime implied by networks of punishment. In so doing, producing, alongside the legal Indian Ocean world of trade and travel, the figure of an Indian Ocean underworld. Indian Ocean fiction from further afield – Lindsey Collen’s Boy (2005) and Abdulrazak Gurnah’s The Last Gift (2012) – set up the Indian Ocean underworld as a critical lens through which the South African crime fiction can be read. Focusing on the underworld therefore provides a way not only of uncovering recent Indian Ocean history, but also of drawing together Indian Ocean with southern African studies.
This article attempts to homogenize gender theory and genre studies in order to build a suitable lens for analyses of Beukes’ texts. The central argument posits two of her novels, Zoo City and The Shining Girls, as trans-gressive examples of crime fiction, suggesting that the writer crosses conceptual borders by disrupting the mutually defining expectations of gender and genre. The significance of these acts of disruption is, primarily, that of refusing erasure: the bodies and lives of women are often, ironically, marginalized in their very scripting and narration. Secondly, there is the suggestion that the disruption of clean-cut generic expectations is an “act of genre” (Jacques Derrida Acts of Literature) which performs and, embodies the contextual shifts within contemporary South African literature and the cultural imaginary.
Social analysis is part and parcel of South African crime fiction,1 a genre which has been flourishing since the end of apartheid. Interrogating the country’s high levels of gender-based violence, various South African crime writers explore gender issues in their fiction.2 Critically-acclaimed crime writers Jassy Mackenzie, Angela Makholwa, and Mike Nicol stand out in this field through their creations of instantly memorable female serial killers as protagonists. In the interviews that follow, the three writers discuss the rationales behind their choice of a traditionally masculine role for their female protagonists, how they navigated through ensuing ethical problems and their characters’ potential for uncomfortable reader identification, but also virulent issues of gender in contemporary South African society. They argue that since assertions of power have so long been connected to assertions of masculinity, performing the male role of the killer is a way for their female figures to move to a place of power. Thus, their protagonists’ perpetrating agency enables them to be the equals — if not superiors — of the men they interact with.3 Moreover, it empowers them to act as renegades who contest the dominant power and who are generally in control in an environment which is rife with inequality and where women more often than not are the victims of crime. In this way, besides being a means to explore female perpetrating agency, the figure of the female killer also has the potential to transform the way readers of crime fiction view women.4
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In this essay we demonstrate how the burgeoning field of South African crime fiction has responded to the birth and development of a democratic, post-apartheid South African state. First, an overview of South African crime fiction in the last 20 years is presented. Then the essay presents an argument for South African crime fiction to be regarded as the ‘new political novel’, based on its capacity for socio-political analysis. We use Deon Meyer, arguably South Africa’s most popular and successful crime fiction author, as an exemplar for our argument. In the following section, the genre-snob debate and the resurgence of such terms as ‘lowbrow’ and ‘highbrow’ are considered in relation to crime fiction and the role it plays in the socio-cultural arena of post-apartheid South Africa. We conclude with a comment on the significance of popular literary genres for democracy and critical discourses which underpin that democracy. The essay shows that crime fiction is a strong tool for socio-political analysis in a democratic South Africa, because it promotes critical discourse in society, despite being deemed lowbrow or ideologically ambiguous.
After a virtual absence from South African writing under apartheid, there has been an explosion of crime fiction in post-apartheid South Africa, largely within the various thriller sub-genres. This article examines Deon Meyer's Heart of the hunter (2003). Drawing on distinctions between the traditional detective story and the thriller, I argue that Meyer uses the ambiguity and radical perspective of the latter genre to challenge the binary oppositions of black and white, and good and bad that dominated thinking and culture in apartheid South Africa. In doing so he adapts the form to the post-apartheid context, revealing how the thriller can be used as a vehicle for postcolonial investigation and suggesting why it has become the genre of choice in a democratic South Africa. The novel presents multiple, and often conflicting, representations of the main protagonist, Thobela Mpayipheli, a former Umkhonto we Sizwe soldier and assassin for the KGB. By linking these activities to a longer history of resistance to colonial domination, through Nelson Mandela and historical Xhosa figures, Meyer invites readers to question the true source of “crime” in the apartheid and post-apartheid contexts of South Africa. By ultimately refusing a simple inversion of good and bad, however, he mobilizes a textual web of re-reading and re-interpretation that, I argue, should be read as a postcolonial and political strategy, appropriate for a country in a state of transformation.
Stages in the History of Detective Fiction CriticismStudies on Narrative and Generic FeaturesProbing EthicsStrategies of Reading
The explosion of crime fiction in contemporary South Africa requires explanation in terms of its relations with actual crime in that country, with crime novels from elsewhere, and with trends in South African literary history. Taking issue with recent criticism which sees in the genre a turning away from historicity and the political, the article argues that the novels of Deon Meyer and Margie Orford display an engagement with major post-apartheid themes, and a politics that is, for the most part, liberal in nature. There is a striking correlation to be drawn between the proposals of South African criminologists and what contemporary crime novelists themselves explore in their fictions. Specifically, both return to the figure of the detective as an antidote to disorder, violence, and uncertainty. This essay interprets the meaning of the post-apartheid crime fiction phenomenon in terms of the novels' capacity to negotiate threat, and to profit from doing so.
Framed by the critical thinking of Achille Mbembe, this article traces how two recent thrillers from Southern Africa, Zambian Grieve Sibale’s 1998 Murder in the Forest and South African Deon Meyer’s 1999 Dead before Dying, concern themselves with questions of trauma, “tradition” and the remaking of African subjectivities, by embodying and representing a series of local-cosmopolitan openings out to difference and to change. Both novels tie the conditions of possibility of individual and social “rebirths” to the necessity of establishing dialogues across socially constructed boundaries, and both reject the logics of stereotype and of revenge. The complex and vigorous regional literary debate that the novels participate in has thus far remained invisible to the trans-national field of literary postcolonialism, chiefly because of its insufficient engagement with locally circulating and “popular-genre” texts. It is part of this article’s aim to contribute towards addressing this scholarly lacuna.
This article compares the representation of detection in two novels by Mike Nicol, The Ibis Tapestry (1998) and Payback (2008). Each concerns the fortunes of arms dealers. The first is a complex intertextual weave of the biography of (the fictitious) Christo Mercer, the life and death of Christopher Marlowe, his tragedy Tamburlaine and reflections on the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The second is a crime-thriller that concerns the legacy of the dubious struggle history of two former operatives now offering personal protection to wealthy foreign tourists in Cape Town. Both deal with the persistence of apartheid history into the post-apartheid dispensation and are equally sceptical of any simple notion of recovering the truths of that history. But the novels differ significantly in their mode and in their generic affiliations. The paper speculates about this difference: it argues that contemporary South African crime writing is inclined to reduce the complex questions regarding the elusive nature of historical truth to generic devices. Irony has, perhaps predictably, become the dominant literary mode in a South African present marked, not by agonized interrogations of our past, but by a worldly resignation to routine criminality and corruption. We have, our argument concludes, left the territory of the political for a politics of generic style.
This paper examines the role of regulators in the UK in integrating sustainable development into public services. In particular, how can we explain the different ways in which different regulators engage with sustainable development? Drawing on insights from rational choice and sociological institutionalism, this paper explains the responses of the three regulators operating in local government, schools and healthcare. It finds that, central government's failure both to send out clear signals about how to promote sustainable development and to create incentives to ensure it happens has left the integration of sustainable development mediated by regulators' organizational norms and professional identities.
Popular versus Literary Crime FictionThe “Aesthetic Rewriting of Crime”From Analysis as Art to the Analysis of ArtRealism, Redemption, RevelationCrises of Identity and Crimes of Passion
Detective Fiction: a Collection of Critical Essays
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Nation, Detection and Time in Contemporary Southern African Fiction Life is a Thriller: Investigating African Crime Fiction
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"The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841); "The Mystery of Marie Roget" (1842); and "The Purloined Letter" (1844).
Political Loyalties and the Intricacies of the Criminal Mind: The Detective Fiction of Wessel Ebersohn
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Nation, Detection and Time in Contemporary Southern African Fiction
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