Tuesday, June 16, 2009
Anthology of South African crime fiction
The new collection Bad Company, edited by Joanne Hichens and published by Pan Macmillan South Africa, gives us a sample of the excellent crime writing that has been bubbling up in that country for the past decade. Outside South Africa, we might know Deon Meyer and some of the classics (James McClure, Wessel Ebersohn) but we have little access to most of the writers collected by Hichens for this book. Here's hoping that Bad Company will get a wide enough circulation to change that situation: it certainly stands up to the best of international crime anthologies (such as the excellent City Noir series by Akashic Books). There's a wide variety of crime fiction here, from police procedurals to psychological thrillers, so there's something for everybody. My favorites are the ones in a more noir mode, but all of them are interesting, and Hichens provides an interesting introduction dealing with crime fiction and the reasons for its current boom in South Africa. Margie Orford leads off with a story featuring her series heroine Clare Hart (documentary film-maker and profiler--the first Clare Hart novel,reviewed here in a previous post, has recently been published in the U.K. and the second is coming out soon, I believe). The story is a chiseled, compact glimpse of a crime-ridden township, murder, and just a hint of hope. Deon Meyer's The Nostradamus Document is a fully realized police procedural with vivid characters, encompassing a full novel's worth of action and interaction in a fast-moving plot with an ending that is not quite a twist but more of a last minute save by the not-quite-straight central character, Detective Sergeant Fransman Dekker. There are several stories that twist back on someone engaged in a crime (such as the tales by Richard Kunzmann, Mike Nicol, Jassy Mackenzie, Hichens herself, Setswana writer Diale Tlholwe, and Zulu writer Meshack Masondo. Several explore extreme cases of social and psychological violence (as in stories by , particularly violence toward women. But there are also empowered women and women, like Orford's Hart, pushing back against the violence (in the case of Dirk Jordaan's story, pushing back in a rather extreme way). A story by the writing team know as Michael Stanley is more in the cozy genre (really more like a certain other writer using Botswana as a backdrop than are (so I've been told) "Stanley"'s novels featuring the same hippo-like policeman who puts in an appearance here). Several stories deal with the recently reported xenophobic violence in the country (such as the poetic story by Jane Taylor and Tim Keegan's study of the strained dynamics of family and race). Peter Church's The One is a tale about the conflict between justice and money, told in a fast and light tone, Andrew Brown's story investigates love and money a bit more darkly. Dark (very dark) tales by Michael Williams (the author of several Cape Town police procedurals) and Tracy Farren explore evil impulses. One of the best stories features private detective Nossel (also seen in Death in the New Republic, more available outside South Africa that the works of some of the other writers, but still not well enough known). Dison also deals with xenophobic violence: Nossel confronts the horror directly and concretely but also through Nossel's conscience and his own sheltered home life. The result demonstrates the great emotional power that a short story can have. If you can find Bad Company, it's a very good collection. Maybe if enough people clamor for it, Pan Macmillan will make it available as widely as it deserves.