Crime fiction in South Africa: the history, the hype and the “genre snob” debate

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When a house has been armed, it becomes explosive. It must be armed and disarmed several times a day. When it is armed, by the touching of keys upon a pad, it emits a whine that sends the occupants rushing out, banging the door behind them. There are no leisurely departures: there is no time for second thoughts, for taking a scarf from the hook behind the door, for checking that the answering machine is on, for a final look in the mirror on the way through the hallway. There are no savoured homecomings either: you do not unwind into such a house, kicking off your shoes, breathing the familiar air. Every departure is precipitate, every arrival is a scraping-in (...) In an alarmed house, you awake in the small hours to find the room unnaturally light. The keys on the touch pad are aglow with a luminous, clinical green, like a night light for a child who’s afraid of the dark. (Ivan Vladislavic, Portrait with Keys, 2006)

The scene described in the opening paragraphs of Ivan Vladislavic’s Portrait with Keys is illustrative of the “explosive” tension and hyper-consciousness around crime – and its counterpart, surveillance – in the new South Africa. It is something which has blossomed among the middle class as an irrational fear of the unknown Other – an Other that has slipped through the confines of the nameable and dispersed itself among all available avenues of society. The enemy-Other, the terrifying flipside of the newly liberated majority after the end of apartheid is – much like Derrida’s “spectre of Marx” after the end of the Cold War – unknown, unforeseeable and essentially invisible – lurking somewhere in the “dark” that frightens the child (Derrida 1994). “At each historical horizon, given the contesting realities contained in [South Africa’s] borders and its long history of violence, there has been a pervasive ‘sense that [apartheid] could never work, yet somehow must work’. This has led to a unique political and existential condition: ‘a constant sense of suspense’. The apocalyptic threat of a ‘bloody and final conflict’ resides deep within the South African psyche” (Titlestad and Neser 2010:265).

As social anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff have noted, with this fear comes an obsession with alternative means of security. These forms of surveillance act both as an alternative to the seemingly inadequate police force of the new state and as a replacement for the all-seeing, all-pervading police state just dissolved. In its place, the all-seeing, all-pervading house alarms, car alarms, sensors, surveillance vehicles, guard huts and CCTV cameras have characterised South African cities since the mid-1990s. However, as noted by the Comaroffs – this fear is coupled with an equally powerful fascination – something which has manifested in the form of fiction, a recreation of real and imagined horrors.

It has been widely acknowledged among academics as well as South Africa’s literary elite that there has been a flurry of popular crime fiction in the past two decades. The significance of this phenomenon in both a literary and a social sense has been the topic of much hot debate within literary circles, as well as falling under hard-earned academic attention such as that of the Comaroffs. As crime fiction author Mike Nicol writes on the authoritative blog Crime Beat, the genre in South Africa has seen a number of shifts in the last century. While there was a scattering of notable crime fiction writers working during the reign of apartheid, their work is described by Nicol (2011) as “tending more towards pulp fiction than noir”, and it is only in the past decade that South African crime fiction has joined international ranks with writers such as Deon Meyer, Margie Orford, Mike Nicol and Roger Smith leading the field. Rita Barnard is quoted on the Stellenbosch Literary Project website (SLiPnet) as saying that “the prevalence of crime fiction, along with the counter-discourse of law and order it has provoked, has become one of the most important features of post-apartheid society (...) Crime writing and detective fiction have flourished since 1994” (in Chetty 2012). Numerous panel discussions and symposia have been held to probe the subject, notable amongst them the recent colloquium on Crime and its Fictions in Africa at Yale University in March 2012.

Accompanying this trend is the recent so-called “genre snob” debate which dominated the pages of SLiPnet as well as taking centre stage at book launches and literary festivals such as the Franschhoek Literary Festival 2012. The debate centred around whether crime fiction, is in its contemporary South African form, provides a grammar with which to explore and critique the current political moment in South Africa, in this way acting as a replacement for the resistance novel of the late 1980s and early 1990s, something in which interest seems to have dwindled. In other words, the question asked is whether crime fiction fulfils a social function beyond its primary function – to entertain, to thrill – and the assertion made is that its entertaining and accessible form allows it to be particularly effective in this regard.

As a topic of academic enquiry the crime genre in South Africa has been widely covered and a general sentiment has been that its great success and appeal, both locally and internationally, has been the result of a nation “maturing”: finding its feet within a new public order, having developed from the more traditional “sleuth” or detective fiction (the “pulp fiction” Nicol notes on Crime Beat) during the apartheid regime to the work of more “serious” writers “giving themselves permission to write ‘escapist’ literature” (Nicol 2011).

Gilfillan writes on SLiPnet that this shift within the genre might “signify our status as a liberal democracy, our partial release from the shackles of apartheid” (Gilfillan 2011). It is something, Nicol claims, which was not possible during the latter years of apartheid – when all of the nation’s literary energy was focused on reading and writing “as an act of protest” (Nicol, 2011). The type of literature that was acclaimed during those years was the work of writers such as Nadine Gordimer, Andre P Brink and JM Coetzee – writers who would dare to bore into the dark South African psyche, exposing very real political tensions and atrocities, often within a metaphoric paradigm to avoid censorship. Writing, in this sense, was a political or even humanitarian act. It is literature such as this, referred to as the “political novel” (De Kock 2012), which has been conjured during the recent so-called “genre snob” debate among academics and literati about the crime fiction genre. It has also been referred to as “literature with a capital L” (Gilfillan 2011), “great literature” (Lucy Graham in response to De Kock 2012), or, more specifically, “the Empire writing back (...) from the margins”, as defined by Gilfillan (Chetty 2012). It is essentially the “literary novel”.

The binary opposition of “literary fiction” on the one hand, and “pulp” or “genre fiction” on the other has exposed the underlying assumption among literary “snobs” that genre fiction, with its narrow parameters and its propensity to distort “reality” in the pursuit of cheap thrills, is not fit for literary examination, that its subject matter cannot possibly be serious or contemplative or have any kind of social significance or resonance. Whereas an aspect of the debate has tended towards advocating the archaic binary opposition of formalism or aestheticism versus utilitarianism, most have acknowledged the fruitlessness of this debate and that, rather, the crux of the debate lies in what exactly crime fiction has to offer in a social sense.

The latest development of the genre, to go back to Nicol’s tracing of its trajectory, is that crime fiction writers such as Meyer, Orford and Smith have begun to veer away from its “escapist” form, the type that deals with “serial killers” and “crimes of deviance” (Nicol 2011) and have begun to add their voices to political commentary, writing about a nation in flux, widespread corruption within the political and business sectors amidst rampant decentralisation and deregulation, and the struggle of a new nation for normative control with the inherited infrastructure of an immoral regime. In this we can see international literary trends reflected: the traditional Holmesian detective novel, maturing from a story of one murder mystery set against the backdrop of political and moral order, to a genre more concerned with ubiquitous moral decay and corruption. Reflect, for example, on the work of American author Raymond Chandler, whom Irish thriller writer John Connolly describes as writing about crime within a system which is “entirely crooked”. Herein lies the heart of the “genre snob” debate – whether crime fiction is, in fact, fulfilling the role that the “political novel” played during the transitional years from apartheid to democracy, its power lying in its accessibility and readability, or whether, as genre fiction, its role does not extend beyond cheap entertainment. As its proponents argue, is it not precisely because it is not bound by the aging tropes of the “resistance” novel (in a sense a genre in itself) that it has wider scope and appeal as an agent of political commentary? If crime fiction is indeed to be seen as the “new political novel”, this evolution is in a sense unsurprising: while the fictional imaginary of the “resistance” novel sets its protagonists against a regime (literally or metaphorically) which has been classified by the United Nations as a crime against humanity, the heroes of the new crime fiction find themselves under a regime which may be constitutionally correct but is found in practice to be increasingly rotten at the core. In terms of subject matter, then, the comparison is understandable. The debate, therefore, rather revolves around a question of convention.

Nicol notes that crime fiction seemed to have dwindled during the height of the apartheid years, and that the work that was being produced before then featured small-town, single murder mysteries. The lack of a tradition of crime writing in South Africa, or the reason why it never managed to move beyond “pulp” and why it all but disappeared during the height of apartheid’s regime, seems to have been due to a combination of fear of the omniscient state, as well as the fact that no “politically minded” writer would permit his or her protagonists to be policemen – as Nicol states, it would be “akin to sleeping with the enemy” (Nicol 2011). Hence the popularity, still prevalent today, of the amateur sleuth, such as the main character in June Drummond’s The Black Unicorn of the late 1950s (acknowledged by Nicol as being the first of its kind in South Africa) – someone who negotiates the space between justice and legality – comparable with Margie Orford’s slightly rogue detective, Riedwaan Faizal, today. Lynda Gilfillan commented in her review of Gallows Hill:(T)he good cop, Riedwaan Faizal, has a deliciously malevolent streak and an appealing disrespect for authority, an instinctive need to privilege morality over legality” (Gilfillan 2011).

The fact that crime writers have, therefore, been allowed to emerge (or have allowed themselves to emerge) from the woodwork after the transition clearly has much to do with the fact that, as Gilfillan puts it, “post-1994, it’s OK to portray the cops – well, most of them, anyway – as good guys” (Gilfillan 2011), but the recent popularity of, and interest in, the genre goes beyond this. The Comaroffs have probed the ways in which it acts as a national allegory for a country in flux, a country experiencing “times of uncertainty”, and make the comparison between the flurry of crime writing in South Africa today with the burgeoning genre in the United States during the 1930s Depression years. Many of the uncertainties faced by Americans at the time can be seen in South Africa today: mass unemployment, rampant crime (organised and otherwise), and a general failure of the state to protect its citizens. Much like in South Africa today, in a time when the state seemed to have lost control, a power vacuum was created in which “transgression and crime thrive[d]” (Gilfillan 2011). The literature born of this period featured “dyspeptic private eyes [who] sallied forth in the name of the law, sharing some of the hoodlum chic of gangsters themselves: above all, a scorn for the police as official society” (Comaroff 806). Again, we can see this reflected in the characters of Orford’s rogue detective Riedwaan Faizal, Nicol’s ex-arms dealer Mace Bishop, or Smith’s disillusioned journalist Robert Dell. However, unlike crime fiction in South Africa (in which most of the characters listed above will inevitably find themselves amidst scandal of the highest echelons of business and government), crime fiction of the American 1930s did not make mention of wider social issues such as “economic collapse, labour struggles or fear of war”, something which CLR James accounts for as a “silent, ‘armed neutrality (...) between the classes’” (in Comaroff 806). Clearly, in the South African “krimi” landscape, we are beyond neutrality – and, for that matter, escapism: the knives of state criticism are very much out. Take, for example, the representation of a corrupt Black Economic Empowerment deal in Meyer’s 7 Days, as well as Nicol’s shady arms deals authorised by the government in Payback, including his character Mo Siq, whom Titlestad and Neser note is “a fictional combination of Mo and Shabir Schaik, the businessmen who facilitated the infamous Arms Deal on behalf of the Mbeki administration” (Titlestad and Neser 2010:268).

Moreover, in a globalised, capitalist world saturated by the media in all forms, the Comaroffs note that South Africans of all creeds and colours seem to be fascinated, if not obsessed, with images and ideas of crime and imagined horror – “whether it be in the form of avid rumour, of homegrown telenovelas, Hollywood horror, high theatre, earnest documentaries or trashy melodramas” (Comaroff 2011:802). It is something which is accounted for academically in innumerable ways. For example, the new South African state saw the most monstrous tools of the apartheid regime stand trial, recount the horror of their actions and go unpunished – many being granted amnesty through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, creating in the witnessing public a latent and desperate yearning for criminals being brought to book. The fear and violence associated with the townships during the latter years of apartheid began to spill over into the more “tranquil, tightly policed ‘white’ cities and suburbs” (Comaroff 2011:801). Furthermore, the infrastructure of the hated state police, including the infamous police headquarters, Wachthuis, was dizzyingly inherited overnight by today’s South African Police Service (SAPS), whom citizens were expected to trust but who seemed to prove increasingly incompetent as the state seemed to lose its grip on its newly entitled subjects: again creating a yearning for visible justice and control.

The seeming incompetence of the police service also served to create a space for ambivalence towards the state and the fetishisation of alternative means of security. At the University of Chicago’s Ryerson lecture, “Divine Detection and the Metaphysics of Disorder” (2011), Jean Comaroff spoke about the increased investment by South Africans in private or community security, perpetuating a culture of fear and increasing the sense of a “spectral” presence of control. Comaroff quotes Walter Benjamin as saying, “the power of the police is ghostly”, because it begins at the point where the state is absent and therefore cannot control its subjects through other means.

The power of private security, then, is even more spectral, and as Comaroff notes, blurs the line between reality and myth, the real scenario and the imagined disaster, as alarms are regularly tripped by accident or practice drills are undergone.

Another example of the fetishisation of alternative security measures in the new South Africa is brought forward by Jean Comaroff: the Directorate for Special Operations, popularly known as the Scorpions. Despised by the common police, they were well-known for their numerous successful convictions, their “Hollywood-style displays of machismo”, their televised raids of the homes of high profile figures such as Jacob Zuma and Jackie Selebi in which ‘photogenic supercops’ take on ‘neo-colonial adventurers’ in highly publicised, action-packed demonstrations” (Comaroff 2011). Again, in this instance, reality takes on the form of spectacle and vice versa, and the volume of the public outcry at the government’s decision to disband them speaks for their frenzied popularity.

One of the functions of imagined crime in the form of fiction, the Comaroffs write, is that it “provides readily available tropes for addressing ironies, for ventilating desires [for justice, for example], and above all, for conjuring a moral commonwealth, especially when radical transformation unseats existing norms and robs political language of its meaning” (Comaroff, 807). Ironies in post-apartheid South Africa are rife, with vast wealth and poverty living alongside one another. With the adoption of such hyperbolic tropes as “the rainbow nation” and “the truth will set you free” (one of the slogans for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission) on the one hand, and flourishing crime and corruption on the other, the landscape indeed seems ripe for fictional plundering.

However, Gilfillan’s and the Comaroffs’ assertion that it is “precisely in times of turbulence that transgression and crime thrive” (De Kock 2012) is inconsistent with the argument put forth by Swedish crime writer Liza Marklund, who argues that the countries where crime fiction seems to flourish are the old, stable democracies and welfare states such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Scandinavia: “(W)e’re all privileged to have been brought up in a stable democratic society. Take South America as an example of an opposite, where there is no such thing as crime fiction. If you have grown up in a society handling violence and evil, then you have no need to reflect upon these subjects,” she commented to the British Scan magazine (Krugly 2010). Indeed, it is curious that the trend in South Africa has been paralleled by an equally notable spell of crime fiction emerging from Scandinavia. While crime in South Africa is ubiquitous, a popular factoid bandied about is that there are more murder novels published in Scandinavia per annum than actual murders.

The reasons for the popularity of crime fiction in certain nations can never be categorically listed, and each nation seems to develop its own grammar within the genre. While this is a legitimate topic for academic enquiry I will let it be pursued elsewhere. For the moment, however, the issue seemed to have been settled at a recent discussion on the matter between Irish writer John Connolly, Deon Meyer, Margie Orford and Mike Nicol. They are two different types of crime fiction, Orford explained. “Violence and crime are ubiquitous in South Africa, so it becomes a fiction about resilience and moral integrity.” Connolly commented that Scandinavian crime writing is founded on a prism within which one death is set against a state of political and moral order; the issues addressed are ones of repressed deviance such as neo-Nazism (such as in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy), which manifest as anomalies such as the Breivik massacre of 2011. Chandler, by contrast, presents a different view of the US from the one Marklund would like to imagine, writing crime within a system which is entirely corrupt. In this Connolly can see South African crime writing reflected.

To return to the “genre snob” debate, and the contention that crime fiction acts in post-apartheid South Africa as the new “political novel”: there are obvious problems with this blunt categorisation – genres are frequently blurred and De Kock, in particular, has called for more vigorous critical attempts to “unscramble the krimi category” (De Kock 2012). It goes without saying that a novel within which crime features is not necessarily a crime novel, and a novel within which politics features is not necessarily a political novel – indeed, crime and politics can, and do, feature in both. For the purposes of the debate, however, the term political novel has been taken to denote the politically subversive fiction produced in South Africa at a particular political moment, namely the latter years of apartheid, as well as the transitional years between apartheid and democracy. It is, therefore, a type of literature which cannot be reproduced, as the political moment in which it was defined has passed. It has therefore left a gap which, the argument goes, has been filled by a particular type of genre fiction intended, by definition, for popular entertainment and consumption – one that fictionalises contemporary crime, some sort of mystery and its solution and (sometimes) resolution – whether it be from the perspective of the police, investigative journalism, amateur sleuths or the courtroom. The most obvious shift, as stated before, is not one of subject matter, but of convention. As genre fiction is by definition a means to entertain and thrill, the reality on which it is based might be distorted or exaggerated to better suit these ends. By the same token, genre fiction cannot delve too deeply into the contemplative – philosophical or socio-political themes – as this would distract from the action and disturb the parameters by which the genre is defined. Nevertheless, literary criticism has increasingly begun to look beyond the “mainstream”, or “highbrow”, literature in order to learn new things about humanity. As Kavish Chetty states on SLiPnet: “(T)hat academics are paying attention to crime fiction as sociological/cultural artefacts is not surprising – dramatic mid-century turns in cultural theory have torn apart banal high/low cultural distinctions, and cultural studies now has the whole of society – from its piss-stained alleys to its gilded palaces – as its legitimate objects of inquiry” (Chetty 2012). This conviction was supported by Gilfillan, who said at a Franschhoek Literary Festival panel discussion that “ever since postmodernism has been on the horizon, genre fiction is pretty much mainstream. People are writing postgraduate theses on it. It’s got an academic status” (in Chetty 2012).


The point has been acknowledged throughout the debate that it is redundant to be exclusionary (or “snobbish”) by refusing to submit crime fiction to the same critical analysis usually reserved for literary fiction. Whatever its aesthetic shortcomings, proponents such as De Kock argue, it may have something very useful to offer South Africa’s understanding of itself. “We’ve had these debates before,” he writes. “Too often (...) Do we really want to go back there? Can’t we take those debates as mainly read, now, and move on?” (De Kock 2012).

Allow me, briefly and for the sake of clarity, to “go back there”: the debate to which De Kock refers is one between the “aesthetes and the utilitarians, or the aesthetes and the democrats” (De Kock 2012), one which assumes a binary opposition between “pure” or autonomous aesthetics bound by Eurocentric standards, and works of art which may have a very particular function, and demand a wide appeal to fulfil this function, sometimes to the detriment of some of its “aesthetic” value. He recalls a similar debate reviewed by Michael Titlestad about The Heart in Exile anthology of resistance poetry of the 1990s (De Kock 2012).  It is a tension which was noted by David Attwell: “That these two opposing pulls – one to the social reference of literature, one to the literary quality of the work - are felt as a deep and abiding contradiction is best proved by the attempts which have been made to map out a ‘middle ground’ and thereby to reconcile them” (Attwell 1984).

It is the same debate which dominated the pages of Contrast in 1977, the weight of which was due to its serious political undertones: AG Ulyatt published his article “Dilemmas in Black Poetry”, in which he outlined his aesthetic criticisms of “black” poetry according to a very narrow set of Eurocentric measures, while claiming to be politically neutral and thus “indifferent”. David Maughan Brown offered the debate some revision in an article entitled “Black Criticism and Black Aesthetics” (adapted from the 1979 article “Black Literature Debate: Human Beings at Work”, which appeared in Contrast). In it he surmised the debate with responses from Jos Slabbert and Kelwyn Sole, reiterating the need for a separate, black aesthetic and the reasons why he believes this to be so urgent. Similar to the literary “snobs” of the crime genre debate, Ulyatt allowed himself to be blinded by aesthetics, the narrow and arbitrary Eurocentric structure to which he subscribed, and remained largely ignorant of the social value, or function, of black poetry.

Thus Brown launches his model of a new “black” aesthetic. He starts with providing a definition of aesthetics by David Dorsey: “In referring to any particular aesthetic, I mean the syndrome of factors within a work of art which govern the audience’s perception of and appreciation of the work, that is, the sum of factors with disparate, inter-related importances which are noted, consciously or unconsciously, by the audience and prized or disparaged. A black aesthetic therefore would be the syndrome of internal factors governing a black audience’s perception and appreciation of a work of art” (in Brown 1979:50, my italics).

Using this definition, Brown points out that it is, therefore, the audience who determines the aesthetic value of the work – the emphasis is on their recognition of and response to the varying aesthetic factors at play in it. He also states that this definition and its implication lead to diverging corollaries: one relating to African culture and one relating to Western criticism. He states that once the laws on which Western aesthetics are founded are destabilised, so will the distinctions between what is considered “literary” and “non-literary”: “Many of the statements made by black critics which would be anathema to people who do not recognise the popular derivation of aesthetics are going to be seen to make a good deal of sense” (Brown 1979:51).

This then completely destabilises the basis on which Ulyatt and other aesthetes of this ilk make their judgments. The binary between “aesthetics” and “utilitarianism” collapses as soon as the Western notion of art-for-its-own-sake, or of form over function – as we see in Ulyatt’s criticism – is relinquished. Since the debate in the pages of Contrast, this kind of essentialism has become even more outdated. It has become clear that the categorisation of “highbrow” literature – essentially Eurocentric – has become redundant and that all forms of “deviant” literature, subcultures and genres have become open to critical enquiry in a sociological, psychological or anthropological sense.

There is value, however, in Ulyatt’s assertion that “the better the poem, the more effective the message” – it is an aestheticism which does not disregard the importance of the “message” altogether. That is to say, whether the art work in question serves a purpose other than the artistic – entertainment, for example – is not relevant; rather, we must decide whether its form allows it effectively to fulfil its function. Considering Dorsey’s model for the audience-driven aesthetic, we must ask: What is the intended function of the literature in question and for whom is it meant? Clearly, the form of crime fiction allows it to fulfil its primary function: to thrill and to entertain. However, whether its form is appropriate for fulfilling the complex social function its proponents claim it has is a question yet to be answered.

Proponents of the social function of the genre maintain that it acts as a means of Aristotelian catharsis by presenting a familiar version of reality, while refracting it and providing the resolution and closure which so many South Africans deeply crave: it acts as a Perseus’s mirror (an analogy that Orford is fond of using) – allowing South Africans to make sense of rampant and often disorientating crime while remaining shielded from it. Orford has also often stated that fiction about crime in South Africa is essentially a study of why it is such a violent place – a “whydunnit” rather than a “whodunnit”, as Gilfillan quipped (De Kock 2012). In this sense, the resolution achieved by the end of the story may be merely superficial (a victory over a single antagonist), leaving the greater social issues unresolved. Crime fiction, Orford argues, acts as a study of the social motivators within the intricate system of crime and punishment, providing unique insight into its society. Crime fiction is useful, she says, because “the only literary protagonists that could traverse South Africa’s stratified society with any kind of plausibility were cops and journalists” (De Kock 2012).

Counting in its favour, too, is that it has wide appeal, unlike the supposedly opaque, open-ended and unsatisfactory postmodern novel – the kind of novel in which, Orford jokes, “the writer is too ‘stupid or lazy’ to give you a sense of closure” (in Chetty 2012). In Gilfillan’s review of Gallows Hill she writes that Orford promises that crime fiction gives readers what they paid for: “plot, character, action, resolution, some good sex” (Gilfillan 2011). It is precisely this readability and accessibility that De Kock claims make it successful as the “new political novel” (De Kock 2012).

It is therefore a delicate balance of factors which must remain in place for the crime fiction novel simultaneously to reflect and to distort reality, remaining both insightful and entertaining. It makes one wonder whether it is too much to ask of a genre which is sold primarily as entertainment.

A more useful question might be whether the typical reader of South African crime fiction is necessarily interested in traversing the strata of its society and whether there are other, more useful forms of literature which serve this purpose. In Gilfillan’s review of Gallows Hill she deconstructs its opening paragraphs to provide an example of the ways in which it might delve into some of the socio-historic themes of contemporary South Africa: “Eva Afrika is the first character we meet in Gallows Hill. She is a vagrant who, like her mongrel dog, Jennie, litters ‘a piss-soaked alley between Parliament and the Slave Lodge’. Except that Eva is a kind of aristocrat – her name ironically conjuring up the Hottentot Eve, or Krotoa, a woman reputed to have held status among the Hottentots. (…) In introducing Eva/Eve, Orford skilfully sketches the history of South Africa: significantly, the Slave Lodge lies at one end, and Parliament at the other end of the stinking alley that Eva calls home. Nearby is a ‘bronze statue of a Boer general on a warhorse. Botha had his eyes levelled at the Hottentots Holland Mountains, where his people had trekked into South Africa’s harsh hinterland nearly two hundred years before’” (Gilfillan 2011).

The passage of which Gilfillan writes, although the action features nothing more than a vagrant and her dog in a Cape Town alleyway one early morning, is one dense with significant social and historical signifiers of colonialism and the legacy of slavery in the Cape. Yet, because of the constrictions of genre, it is possible only to trade in received ideas – “hero” and “villain” are given a particular South African flavour, and so “Eva” is used to signify the plight of women within slavery, the word “Hottentots” a diminishing and plundered race, and “Boer general” the hardened and villainous colonial frontiersman. However, none of the themes which underlies these images can be too deeply discussed, lest it compromise the pace of the plot. This is something to which

Orford herself has admitted: “(O)ne of the problems I found with (...) Gallows Hill is that you can’t mess with the genre. You can push against it at certain points. The detective character functions as a scopic eye: a way of doing an internal examination, exploring all sorts of aspects of South Africa. But one of the things [crime fiction] could never do is write a novel about how poverty functions in Gugulethu” (in Chetty 2012).

Similarly, Deon Meyer has stated that “crime fiction can never be a panoramic window on society, it can only be a small window with a restricted view” (Flood 2012).

The limited scope of the crime novel, despite perhaps being the best kind of fictional paradigm within which to “traverse the strata” of South African society, is a question that has been raised by academics such as Imraan Coovadia and Kelwyn Sole. While Sole questions whether the agents of crime fiction are “sufficiently diverse in their social being, their imagination, their understanding of South Africa to allow a multiplex view of our society to emerge from genre” (De Kock 2012), Coovadia laments the selectivity of the way violence is treated in crime fiction. He echoes Orford and Meyer’s sentiments about its limited scope by saying, “I don’t see a lot of crime fiction writing about black people, or poor people, or working class people as central to the issues of crime (...) In Shakespeare, you feel more sorrow or pain for one king than you do for the hundred thousand peasants who are starving in the background of the play. Crime fiction is particularly unfair because it focuses on certain types of murders and not others” (in Chetty 2012).

Coovadia questions the limitations caused by its generic conventions, arguing that the way violence is treated in the crime novel is distinctly different from the way in which violence is treated in other kinds of novels. Violence exists in the crime novel to thrill – he describes the novels as “little machines” whose purpose is to produce certain kinds of sensations. The moment they cease to do this they are no longer a part of this genre (Chetty 2012).

The question, then, is whether the tension between the social themes present in the content and the formal limitations of the genre will mean that the “political flavour” which proponents claim this fiction to have is merely superficial. It is a criticism raised by Chetty: “Often the insights (sociopolitical, existential) generated by this fiction do not transcend the most banal of platitudes: they are written with a grim surrender to a corrupt Africa” (De Kock 2012).

“A grim surrender to a corrupt Africa” brings to mind the Comaroffs’ theories about what they call “mythostats”: statistics about crime (often false), spread for their shock value (often by members of a nervous middle class), which gather truth value as they circulate (Comaroff 2011). This is a concern to which De Kock alludes in his review of Roger Smith’s Dust Devils, stating that “Smith’s fiction, taken as political allegory (...) sees the country as an apocalyptic hell, surely an exaggeration for the sake of genre” (De Kock 2012). The argument to which he refers, also put forward (with regard to Nicol’s fiction) by Titlestad and Neser in their essay “Turning to crime: Mike Nicol’s The Ibis Tapestry and Payback”, is that historical intricacies and ethical subtleties are sacrificed for sensation and generic convention. Seen in this way, crime fiction, instead of cathartically dispelling fears and anxieties about crime, in fact exploits and aggravates them. Seen in this way it is, as Coovadia puts it, “not an accurate version of society at all” and is, rather, about “certain sensations, certain politics at the level of the newspaper” (in Chetty 2012).

Is it possible then, that were crime fiction taken as political allegory, it may be a way of creating sensationalist delusions about South African society among an already reactionary middle class, in the same vein as the “mythostat”? Sole warns that if this is the case, then consumers of this kind of fiction run the risk of becoming “just another gated community, struggling to make sense of a scary world” (De Kock 2012).

Finally, an important analysis to make is the way in which crime fiction is received by its average readership. If, as proponents of the genre as “the new political novel” claim, it includes those who want to “traverse the strata” of their society – those who crave deeper insight into the workings of contemporary South Africa’s underworld – then any distortions of reality made for the benefit of action, plot and genre will prove this fiction unsatisfactory. But if, on the other hand, the readership is merely desirous of entertainment, then the fact that it is set within a local context is incidental. It seems as though the authors of crime fiction must decide either to maintain the conventions of the genre at the sacrifice of deeper political, historical or social probing, or to relinquish the conventions of genre altogether. While this may bring with it the benefit of greater flexibility within their writing, it may be at the sacrifice of some of the popularity associated with genre fiction.

In conclusion, while crime fiction may be an important subject for postmodern literary analysis, the claim that it fills the gap left by the “political novel” of the 1980s and early 1990s by providing social, historical and political insight into contemporary South Africa appears unfounded. It is in other forms of writing, particularly in the hybrid forms of literary or narrative non-fiction that takes as its subject the political and criminal landscape of contemporary South Africa, while drawing on some of the saleable aesthetic conventions of crime fiction, that this aim can be more satisfactorily achieved. In South Africa it appears that the increasing hunger for works such as these – works by Jonny Steinberg, such as The Number (about Cape Flats gang politics)and Midlands (about a KwaZulu-Natal farm murder), Antony Altbeker’s Fruit of a Poisoned Tree (about the Inge Lotz murder)and Mandy Wiener’s Killing Kebble (an investigation into the highest echelons of South Africa’s underworld)comes from more than just a partiality for thrills. It also emerges from an urgency to understand the society from which these crimes are born, beyond what journalism or academics – or even fiction – can offer.

Perhaps this is what has prompted Marlene Van Niekerk to say in her comment on the back cover of Fruit of a Poisoned Tree: “This is obligatory reading for those interested in the current state of the nation. It reads like a thriller and (...) leaves the reader with serious food for thought. It almost convinces one that fiction has become redundant in this country.”


Altbeker, A. 2010. Fruit of a Poisoned Tree: A True Story of Murder and the Miscarriage of Justice. Jonathan Ball Publishers, Johannesburg.

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Chetty, K. 2011. New political novels not so political. SLiPnet, 14 May. Available at

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Titlestad, M. and Neser, A. 2010. Turning to Crime: Mike Nicol’s The Ibis Tapestry and Payback. The Journal of Commonwealth Literature. Vol 45 (3 June), SAGE Publications, pp 260-73.

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Launch of Burke, D and J Connolly (eds), 2012, Books to Die For at the Book Lounge, Cape Town, 6 August 2012.

Launch of Burke, D and J Connolly (eds), 2012, Books to Die For, at the Book Lounge, Cape Town, 6 August 2012.

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