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By Mike Nicol

Well, the first crime fiction festival to be organised by South African crime writers happened over the final weekend of November in Johannesburg.  Called CrimeWrite it consisted of panel discussions and one-on-one conversations, all of them determined by the writers themselves.

So the topics ran from the good old fall-backs such as methods of killing to discussions on fast cars and country rock music, and from writing court room scenes to deadly females and the legacy of our founder of the genre in SA, James McClure.

An interesting topic this as McClure’s two characters Mickey Zondi and Tromp Kramer established a partnership across the racial divide, and although Kramer was racist in his language towards Zondi the two shared a deep friendship at an emotional level.  That duo now manifests themselves in a number of partnerships, some of them strictly professional, some also with a love interest: Margie Orford’s Clare Hart and Riedwaan Faizal, Jassy Mackenzie’s Jade de Jong and David Patel, Richard Kunzmann’s Harry Mason and Jacob Tshabalala, Wessel Ebersohn’s Yudel Gordon and Abigail Bukula and my own Mace Bishop and Pylon Buso.

Looked at from a distance, it does seem that our crime fiction is also trying to imagine a country where language and emotional bonds unite the individuals across the race lines.  As Richard Kunzmann remarked during the conversation, not altogether facetiously, ‘Crime fiction as therapy.’  Of course, none of us set out to do that consciously, it just happened along the way.

Some of the other topics discussed at CrimeWrite were crime novels as love stories in disguise (and given the amorous adventures of most of the couples in our fiction this does seem to be the case), the tenacity of the series character, and, finally, a discussion on reading SA crime fiction.

Some points raised here were that often we need to be ratified by overseas publication before local readers will buy our books (which is sadly all too true); that crime fiction is seen as dumbing down (an opinion held largely by academics who haven’t yet got their heads around the idea that commercial fiction has a completely legitimate place in any society’s literary life); and that constant refrain about why should SA crime fiction be read when real crime is daily in our faces?  This is a fair question given the horrors of our crime, but it fails to distinguish between fact and fantasy, which was a topic that came up repeatedly during the discussions.

My quote of the weekend came from Jassy Mackenzie who said, ‘A good crime novel is utopian fiction.’

Will CrimeWrite continue?  Difficult to say.  Although there is a wide readership for crime fiction here, the local version is not well known, so we don’t draw a big audience.  With a bit of luck outings similar to this one will gradually build up a following.  Certainly there were some appreciative voices, but most importantly the writers had a blast.

Those who attended included: Wessel Ebersohn, Sarah Lotz, Sifiso Mzobe, Richard Kunzmann, Jassy Mackenzie, Margie Orford, Michael Sears, and Stanley Trollip – all writers with more than one crime novel to their name.  Thanks to Skype we also had links to Roger Smith who was in Thailand, and Deon Meyer who was in Europe on a book tour.

Mike Nicol
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