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By Mike Nicol

It’s 2011 but it’s best to start at the end of 2010.  Last year was a dire one for book sales in South Africa, as it was in most countries.  Yet there were nine thrillers published, against seven in 2009 and nine in 2008 so at least the crime thriller is holding its own in terms of published books.

In fact there is now a core group of writers who have produced at least two crime novels: Wessel Ebersohn, Sarah Lotz, Jassy Mackenzie, Chris Marnewick, Deon Meyer, Margie Orford, Roger Smith and Michael Stanley.  Most of them published this year and all of them are due to publish in 2011.  I am not sure if there are any surprises on the horizon but judging by the load of thriller manuscripts beginning to land on publishers’ desks, we should soon see the core group expanding.

While the genre thrives however, reviewers are still bewildered about how they should respond.  Should they see the crime novel as the new political novel?  Should they view it as a dumbed down version of the literary novel?

This topic raised its head again last month with a review in the Sunday Independent of Sarah Lotz’s Tooth and Nailed.  Now Lotz writes very amusing and witty legal thrillers.  They have pages that are laugh out loud funny.  Her first aim is to entertain, anything else you get from the book (and there is much else) is a bonus.

The roots of the reviewers problem are buried in our past.  Apartheid meant that we read our novels as political and social commentary.  Sixteen years into democracy we still haven’t been able to move beyond this fixation.  Which is why the Sunday Independent reviewer felt that ‘the literary value […] of a crime novel should be determined by whether the author has manipulated the genre to be a probing sociological tool’. In a sense she’s right. If a crime novel has manipulated the genre then it is probably no longer a crime novel and because the conventions are now redundant you could critique its literary value. A case in point would be Andrew Brown’s Coldsleep Lullaby or The Refuge where he has used the conventions of crime fiction to write novels which do not belong in the genre.

The reviewer goes on to say that ‘it has been suggested that this discrete fictional genre is ideally positioned to offer insight into our society. Because crime is a pressing concern in this country, it is easy to see why this brand of popular literature might be viewed as an overlooked body of writing that could perceivably offer some profound insights[…]’

I don’t think any of the crime novelists have suggested that they offer insight into our society. Roger Smith might have come closest to this position by talking about his books in the context of the Cape Flats gangs which inform his fictions but he constantly points out that his works are first and foremost imaginative.

As a spin-off, some crime novels do contain what could be called social commentary. But it is a spin-off. For instance, Jo Nesbo’s novels provide extremely interesting insights into alcohol usage and abuse in Norway. But you don’t judge his fiction according to how successfully or otherwise he’s presented this social problem. And nor should local crime novels be evaluated by what they say about our crime situation or our political situation or about how we live. Certainly the genre isn’t developing because South Africa is in the grip of an appalling crime wave, nor is it a response to that phenomenon.

As I have said before, if there is a need to evaluate the rise of the crime novel in South Africa then it should be seen as part of our normalisation as a society. In other words our fiction no longer has to play up the big social or political themes. It can now exist as a fantasy, and crime fiction before it is anything else is fantasy.

As the reviewer concludes, ‘Ultimately, Lotz aims to entertain rather than shed any real light on the nature of crime in our society.’ In this she is dead right. Lotz is about a good read. It seems to me that producing compelling fiction is the first priority of all the authors currently writing crime fiction in South Africa.

That review reminded me of a 2004 review of Deon Meyer’s Heart of the Hunter. It also reveals a bewildered reviewer trying to make sense of the new fiction: ‘It’s the kind of writing that seems slightly alien to South Africa, in my opinion. I don’t even know why I say that, really, other than because the better-known writers ploughing this field are American, and because so many South Africans of all colours and cultures turn to America for role models – and that slavish imitation annoys me. I’m not crusading for making our writers stick monotonously to models provided by the usual suspects – Gordimer, Paton Coetzee, etc – but I couldn’t help feeling throughout this book that Deon Meyer had made a careful study of the mechanics of the Ludlum & Associates School, and that he was keeping very, very close to the template.’

It seems that in seven years the response to our crime fiction hasn’t come very far.  Ah well, I suppose the best thing is to keep on writing.  Fortunately the writers are intent on doing just that.

Mike Nicol
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