By Mike Nicol
Crime fiction and books on true crime I tend to see as two very different things, especially in a country such as South Africa where crime is in our faces much of the time. But there is a tendency at local book fair discussion groups to lump the two together. Invariably we end up at the same table.
This happened at the Cape Town Book Fair this year, it happened at a conference in Johannesburg last year that was ostensibly about true crime, and it happen last month at the Mail & Guardian Literary Festival in Johannesburg. Which is unfortunate as I don’t believe our true crime scene has anything to do with our fantasy world of crime fiction.
Nor is it a response to the crime situation, although this has been suggested by some critics. As I’ve said before, our crime fiction is about the normalization of a society that was deformed for decades by apartheid and before that by colonialism. We have finally given ourselves permission to write commercial fiction.
Goes without saying, crime fiction is about plots and stories and characters and in the end the mayhem is resolved. In fact our crime fiction has a tendency to favour an ending which is fairly soft-hearted given the preceding steel and bullets. (In this regard see Deon Meyer’s Thirteen Hours, Roger Smith’s Wake Up Dead, Wessel Ebersohn’s Those Who Love Night – all available in the US or at internet bookstores. And then by way of contrast see Jassy Mackenzie’s Stolen Lives.) In no way does true crime have the sort of whew, that’s okay then ending that we usually find in crime fiction. True crime ends with shattered lives. True crime is devastating.
However, one of the fascinating conundrums about crime fiction is that it’s entertainment and critique simultaneously. Of course, it is first and foremost escapist. Reading it is about going along for the thrill. But then it has this secondary function in that it does reflect its society. Perhaps it’s because in South Africa we have not yet learnt how to talk about crime fiction that the true crime situation becomes the default discussion. I’m sure that once we’ve moved beyond the standard lit crit approach to characters and plots we’ll be into far more interesting terrain.
Until then, if you want an insight into the variety of crime fiction that’s appeared on our shelves in the last two months take a read of these interviews, which originally appeared on my blog Crime Beat. They’re with two novelists who already have a following in the US and UK, Roger Smith and Wessel Ebersohn, and a new writer, Sifiso Mzobe, who brings a fresh perspective to life in the townships.