South Africa has had its fair share (perhaps more than its fair share) of well known and lauded authors – including Andre Brink, Alan Paton, Nadine Gordimer, JM Coetzee, Bryce Courtney, and Wilbur Smith. Inevitably much of their work has explored the societal distortion produced by apartheid and the way in which apartheid affected the people involved. Even after the change to a democratic government, the legacy of apartheid and the transition to the new order provided the almost hypnotic focus.
More recently, however, a group of writers have started to write in the crime fiction genre. It’s not about the past or the future, but about how things are now. Of course, the current situation cannot be divorced from the past, but the focus is much more on how the present day situation affects people and how the characters respond to the environment of the twenty-first century.
Some of it is pretty grim stuff. Richard Kunzmann explores the ghetto and the use of human body parts for muti in Bloody Harvest; Mike Nicol, the drug lords who pretended to be the moral guardians of the Cape Muslims in Payback; Deon Meyer, the brutality to children and its affect on an unlikely hero in Devils Peak; Margie Orford, horrid murders of street children in Blood Rose; Roger Smith, corrupt policemen and wanton violence in Mixed Blood. But these books are not about issues; issues are only the backdrop for great stories that are unquestionably African and unquestionably southern African. And they are stories that people all over the world find intriguing and readable. These authors have been published in the UK, US, and translated into multiple languages. There are new writers, established writers toying with the crime genre, as well as old hands. Recently Joanne Hitchens compiled and edited a book of seventeen short crime stories by different South African authors from across the spectrum. Called Bad Company it gives a sampler of where all these authors’ heads are today. It provides a multifaceted look at current-day South Africa.
So what of Michael Stanley? Why did we choose to stray across the border, into Botswana – a land, as we were once told, “owned” by Alexander McCall Smith? We did so because we wanted the wildness, the diamond mines, and a chance to juxtapose the much less diverse Batswana culture with that of South Africa, which plays a significant role in our first story A Carrion Death. That sounds like a good enough reason, but mostly we just love the place! Imagine a safari to Botswana being tax deductible. It was irresistible. Our second book, A Deadly Trade, takes place in the north of the country, and here it is the past of Zimbabwe which leaves its mark on the present. Perhaps if things had not gone so horribly wrong there, Detective Kubu might have dined around the restaurants of Harare rather than those of Gaborone.
So that is what South African crime writers are about. Writing about villains and victims and heroes in the context of local cultures, dreaming up tasty plots, and penning them in a way that makes readers care about the characters and stops them putting the book down. No different from crime writers elsewhere, except that the locations are exotic and the cultures complex.
A Deadly Trade is published by Headline