Genius of James McClure
South Africa has a stellar group of crime writers at the moment, including Wessel Ebersohn, Joanne Hichens, Meshack Masondo, Deon Meyer, Jassy Mackenzie, Sifiso Mzobe, Mike Nicol, Margie Orford, and Roger Smith. One could also include Richard Kunzmann, Chris Marnewick, Malla Nunn, and Peter Temple in this list—writers born in southern Africa but living elsewhere.
However, probably the best known of South African crime writers is no longer with us. James McClure was born in South Africa in 1939, working as a teacher and journalist before moving with his family to England in 1965. For the most part, he worked as a journalist and was editor of the Oxford Timeswhen it won Weekly Newspaper of the Year in 1997. He was also editor of theOxford Mail. He died in Oxford in 2006.
McClure is best known for the eight books in the Kramer and Zondi series, which began in 1971 with the publication of the very successful Steam Pig(winner of the UK Crime Writers Association’s Gold Dagger Award) and ended with The Song Dog in 1991.
The books are set in apartheid South Africa—a country that went to extraordinary lengths to separate the races and minimize the education and job opportunities of Blacks. In a sense, McClure thumbed his nose at these policies in his mystery series, because white Lieutenant Tromp Kramer works with a black, Zulu partner Bantu Detective Sergeant Mickey Zondi. Although such partnerships did exist, making them public was rarely done.
The series is set in and around a fictitious town called Trekkersburg. It is a typical White-controlled South African town of the time. Other races, such as Indians and Blacks, enjoy inferior positions in the social, economic, and political hierarchy, with Blacks being at the bottom. McClure captures all of this with accuracy and humor. He also depicts the hypocrisy of the dominant Afrikaans-speaking ruling party, whose moral positions were conveniently flexible. At the time, socializing between the races was almost impossible. A myriad of laws was enacted to minimize inter-racial contact, and any amorous contact between Whites and Blacks was illegal. Yet, if one travelled across the border into Swaziland, for example, it was generally Afrikaners—the strongest supporters of apartheid—who were picking up Black prostitutes. “Going for a taste of chocolate” was the crass way this was described.
Readers of McClure’s books today are often shocked by the language—the word “kaffir,” for example, used at the time to talk about Blacks in South Africa, is equivalent to “nigger” in the United States. Afrikaners, in particular, had no compunction about using it to a Black’s face. So, removing it from the books for political correctness would have resulted in a less effective depiction of what was happening.
The following extracts from The Song Dog capture much of this. In the first, Kramer promises not to share a secret.
“Listen,” said Claasens, ”I’m just going to have to tell you the whole thing, but you mustn’t repeat it to another soul, not ever. Do you promise? Only the Colonel, me, and Suzman were meant to ever know this.”
“Why not Terblanche as well?”
“Huh! Hans is such a bloody Christian these days you can’t trust him with anything, hey? Do you promise’?”
“Fine, not another soul,” said Kramer.
However, Kramer has complete trust in his Zulu partner, Mickey Zondi, and needs to find a way to share the secret without breaking his promise. He finesses it adroitly.
Zondi sat up and looked around him. “It’s okay for me to speak again, Lieutenant?”
“Ja, fine,” said Kramer, pulling his tie loose and undoing his collar. “But be prepared, hey, to answer the Big Question …”
“Which is, boss?”
“Tell me, when the Almighty made kaffirs, did he give them souls, hey?”
“The boss means the same as the white man?”
“Uh-huh, of course.”
“Hau,God would never do such a terrible thing, Lieutenant.”
“Excellent,” said Kramer, “no man likes to break a solemn promise. Now you just listen to this, kaffir, and don’t you bloody interrupt until I’m finished, you hear?”
He then shares the secret so they can work together on finding the culprit they are looking for.
McClure’s books look at life in apartheid South Africa with a keen eye, including aspects that some non-South African readers may find difficulty relating to, particularly the presence of witch doctors. Witchcraft is common in southern Africa—often in a very positive way—and plays a prominent role in the lives of Blacks, educated or not. To ignore it would be to miss an important part of local culture. McClure recognizes this and handles it insightfully, particularly in The Song Dog.
The plots of McClure’s books are also strong, with enough twists and turns to keep readers and detectives alike guessing as to who the culprits are. They are plausible and interesting, with a range of people who reflect the usual quirks of society.
The titles of the series are:
Steam Pig (1971)
The Caterpillar Cop (1972)
The Gooseberry Fool (1974)
The Sunday Hangman (1977)
The Blood of an Englishman (1980)
The Artful Egg (1984), which was on The Times list of 100 Best Crime Novels of the 20th Century.
The Song Dog (1991), which is actually a prequel to Steam Pig. Kramer and Zondi meet here for the first time.
McClure also wrote a stand-alone thriller, Rogue Eagle (1976), which won a Silver Dagger. In it, a group of white South Africans use neighboring country Lesotho to hatch a plot to overthrow the apartheidgovernment, not because it is so racist, but because the group believes it is becoming too liberal!
He enjoyed the esteem of fellow writers and critics. Ruth Rendell called him a “great storyteller” and Susanna Yager said that “even his corpses seem more real than some other authors’ living characters.”
In addition to his fiction, McClure wrote two highly regarded non-fiction books, Spike Island (1980) and Cop World (1984). These looked at the operations and functioning of the police forces of Merseyside and San Diego respectively. Both books give readers a glimpse of the people who wear the uniforms.
McClure is a wonderful writer, who is becoming forgotten in the flood of new titles. In his books, readers will find wonderful plots, terrific characters, and plenty of wry humor.
As with many classics, the Kramer and Zondi series, in particular, is worth revisiting. Fortunately, SOHO Press has recently republished the whole series.
Michael Stanley is the writing team of South Africans Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. Their Detective Kubu series is set in Botswana. Their third novel,Death of the Mantis, won the 2012 Barry Award and was short-listed for an Edgar and an Anthony. Their fourth mystery, Deadly Harvest, will be released at the end of April 2013 and has as its backstory the illegal use of human body parts for witchcraft.