At the recent Stellenbosch Woordfees (Festival of Words), four female crime writers, anchored by fellow crime author Mike Nicol, gathered to discuss the status of crime fiction. Karin Brynard, Bettina Wyngaard, Irma Venter and Icelandic writer Yrsa Sigurdardottir reflected on the difference between the writing of male and female authors. However, what was more noteworthy was how the occurrence of crime in a country influences the nature of its crime fiction.
In a country where crime is widespread, South African crime writers have an abundance of material to work with. In comparison, Iceland is comparatively crime-free and it would be unrealistic for guns to be used as murder weapons as they’re almost impossible to come by. Instead Nordic noir authors like Yrsa Sigurdardottir have to find other innovative ways to kill off their victims and they also don’t shy away from depicting violence. In South Africa the situation is different.
One of the biggest challenge South African crime writers face is finding a way to write for and engage with an audience desensitised by violence. Some writers succeed by focusing on the story behind the crime rather than the graphic, violent details of the crime itself. They write for readers who want to see justice prevail in fiction, since it seldom occurs in real life. Others manage to find new and interesting, funny or even fantastical stories to keep you turning the pages.
South African crime fiction varies from the hardboiled detective story to crime-horror, from socio-political novels to detailed procedurals. To a large extent our crime fiction is set in a political and social environment which makes categorising them by traditional crime fiction standards quite challenging.
With a population of 55 million and 11 official languages, the pool of readers and storytellers is vast. South Africa is the 25th-largest country in the world, five times the size of the United Kingdom, yet a large part of the population can’t afford books, which are generally considered a luxury.
Here are a few writers who have succeeded in drawing readers in spite of these obstacles.
Fish Pescado. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more descriptive name for the main character of a crime novel. Along with his partner and sometime sidekick Vicky Kahn, this surfer and private investigator ensures there’s plenty of drama and intrigue in Mike Nicol’s novels – and we reviewed one of the best of them, Agents of the State, in 2017. However, if it’s action you’re looking for, you won’t find it here. Mike doesn’t write action scenes. Not because he doesn’t like them, but because he’s publicly admitted that he doesn’t know how to write them. A lack of action doesn’t make any difference to his multi-layered, sometimes funny, always entertaining characters. He’s produced 20 novels, has been published in the UK and the US, and translated into Afrikaans, Dutch, French and German.
Agents of State on Amazon
Ekow Duker’s work and education has taken him across the African continent, to the UK, France and the USA, before he settled in Johannesburg. As with many South African crime writers, crime and the social and political environment in which it thrives sometimes play a bigger role than the crime-solving itself. He is most recognised for White Wahala, which was shortlisted for the European Union Literary Award in 2011/2012. Wahala is Nigerian slang for trouble, an apt description for Cash Tshabalala, a notorious, well-dressed money-lender in Scottsville, Soweto who lends money to the son of a fabulously rich white South African family. According to Ekow his stories “…tell of the brutality, love, fragility and hope that characterises life in modern day Africa.” His other novels include Dying in New York, The God Who Makes Mistakes, and the recently released Yellowbone.
White Wahala on Amazon
Lauren Beukes is the rock star of South African fiction. She’s published three novels; compiled Maverick, a short story collection which explores the lives of some of South Africa’s most famous and notorious women; worked as a journalist; and also writes screenplays, comics and TV shows. Her genre-splitting novels have been published around the world and she’s won the coveted Arthur C Clarke Award. If you prefer escaping to a world where time and reality are warped, Beukes’ writing will fascinate you. Her books are all standalone, but for a truly bone-chilling read, try Broken Monsters, in which Detective Gabi Versado has to find a killer hell-bent on creating his own monsters in the city of Detroit.
Broken Monsters on Amazon
The queen of South African crime fiction is Karin Brynard, but she started her writing career as a political journalist, working on several newspapers and magazines in South Africa. This journalism background is tangible in the way she fills out her characters and storylines with relevant factual details in a subtle yet effective way. This is particularly evident in her last novel, Homeland, where she returns to her roots in the Kalahari in the Northern Cape. Recurring character Captain Albertus Beeslaar narrowly escapes his own voluntary resignation when an elder of the local San community dies after being released from police custody. Also recommended if you are looking for crime novels with substance and content true to the South African landscape are Karin’s other two novels, Our Fathers and Weeping Waters.
If Karin Brynard is the queen of South African crime fiction, Deon Meyer is the undisputed king. With 13 novels and two short story collections published in more than 40 countries worldwide it’s futile to debate his remarkable success. Another former journalist, his novels fall on the gritty side with characters like Benny Griessel, who is so true to life that he could easily be your South African next-door neighbour. If you are curious about life and crime in the Winelands, Icarus, one of his more recent novels is highly entertaining, surprisingly humorous and an easy introduction to Deon’s larger than life characters. You can also read our review of Fever here.
Fever on Amazon
Margie Orford is irrefutably one of the most underrated crime writers in South Africa. Although she hasn’t published any new novels recently, her Clare Hart series stands out in a genre where male characters dominate. If you love a strong female lead, social commentary and a solid storyline, you will enjoy her writing. Main character Dr Clare Hart’s work highlights the effect of violent crime on women – and justly so, since the most recent data from the World Health Organisation shows the occurrence of femicide in South Africa to be almost five times higher than the global average. The series comprises four novels: Like Clockwork, Blood Rose, Daddy’s Girl and Gallows Hill. If you are brave, start with the first of the series, a harrowing depiction of human trafficking and the reality of street life, set against the backdrop of Cape Town.
Margie Orford on Amazon
Imraan Coovadia is a prolific storyteller and effortlessly addresses the issues of migration, historical concerns, loss of culture and nationality in a clever and sometimes humorous manner. Although not all of Imraan’s novels can be categorised as traditional crime fiction, some are based firmly in an environment and society where crime is prevalent. Most of his fiction focuses on the impact of politics, particularly on the Indian community in South Africa. High Low In-Between can be considered as crime fiction with a political backdrop. Set in KwaZulu Natal, it tells of Nafisa’s struggle to come to terms with the murder of her husband and the complications arising from it. Other novels include The Wedding, Green-Eyed Thieves, High Low In-Between, The Institute for Taxi Poetry, Tales of the Metric System and most recently A Spy in Time.
High Low In-Between on Amazon
Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip make up the formidable team who created Botswana detective David Bengu or Kubu, a larger-than-life assistant police superintendent named after the Tswana word for hippopotamus. Although their writing hasn’t received the attention it deserves in South Africa, they’ve published seven novels in the series and gained rapid support from the overseas market, particularly in the UK. Queen of Icelandic crime writing Yrsa Sigurdardottir describes it as “…crimes as dark as the darkest of Nordic noir.” Read our interview with the pair here.
Carrion Death on Amazon
Irma Venter creates strong, unconventional women, interesting men and intriguing plots – all based in unique settings, whether it’s Dar es Salaam, Johannesburg, India or Berlin. In the first four books of the series the narrative revolves mostly around two main characters – Ranna Abramson, a freelance photographer, and Alex Dercksen, a freelance journalist. In the fifth, Circus, the attention shifts to the back story of one of the other characters, Adriana van der Hoon. We get a glimpse of Adriana growing up in Johannesburg in the 1980s. Her childhood is disrupted when her Dutch father, an anti-apartheid activist, smuggles money for the ANC and she is blackmailed by the security police. Sadly all of the novels in the series haven’t been translated yet, but the last two, Blue Sunday and Circus are available in English and can be read as standalone works.
Blue Sunday on Kobo
Zanemvula Mda, or Zakes as he is better known, published his first highly acclaimed novel, Ways of Dying, in 1995. His books are based firmly in a political and socio-economic setting, with unavoidable references to crime. In Black Diamond, tough magistrate Kristin Uys puts Stevo Visagie behind bars however he still manages to plan his revenge from Diepkloof Prison. What follows are the comedic repercussions of Stevo’s actions and a brilliant satire of life in South Africa. Mda is a prolific writer of novels, plays, poems and articles for academic journals and newspapers, whose writing has been translated into 20 languages.
Black Diamond on Amazon
South Africans use humour as a coping mechanism. We have to, just look at our politics. With her cosy Tannie Maria mysteries, Sally Andrew adds some zest (and recipes) to a predominantly serious genre. Recipes for Love and Murder tells the story of a 50-ish short and plump agony aunt who becomes an unlikely detective in the small Karoo town of Ladismith. Even though it might gravitate more towards mysteries than hardcore crime, it’s still worth a read for its humour and South Africanisms. You might even consider reading the follow-up, Tannie Maria and the Satanic Mechanic just for its obscure title? Note: Tannie is Afrikaans for auntie. Preferably don’t call anyone over 40 a tannie unless she’s your actual aunt.
Recipes for Love and Murder on Amazon
Roger Smith, who is also a screenwriter, director and producer, doesn’t shy away from unlikable characters with personal issues and messy, brutal story-lines inspired by South Africa’s reputation of violence. Based on his writing style he’s one of the few South African crime writers who fits squarely into the hardboiled noir crime mould and is frequently compared to Elmore Leonard. In Sacrifices, Michael Lane tries to protect his family from becoming another South African crime statistic by isolating them behind their mansion’s security walls. However, violence doesn’t always attack from the outside, it can prowl inside the very walls protecting you. Roger Smith’s thrillers Nowhere, Man Down, Sacrifices, Capture, Dust Devils, Wake Up Dead, Mixed Blood and Ishmael Toffee are published in eight languages and widely read internationally. You can read our interview with Roger Smith here.
Roger Smith on Amazon