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A SARoB Classic: Richard Peck on James McClure

BOOK SA and guest editor Rob Turrell, founder of the Southern African Review of Books (SARoB), bring you classic reviews from the SARoB archive, each accompanied by a new introduction. Click the SARoB tag for more; and visit the WayBack Machine to browse the archive.

James McClure“The time has come for South Africans to discover one of their own”, Richard Peck wrote in 1994 reviewing Faber’s re-issue of most of James McClure’s crime novels. It did not happen: is the time ripe now? Interest in crime writing is growing here; there’s even a blog about it now on BOOK SA.

McClure, who died last year (see his Guardian obituary), had long been a well-respected figure on the international crime writing circuit. He created the enduring police duo of Kramer and Zondi – first names Tromp and Mickey – whose relationship is at the heart of all his crime novels. I think Steam Pig, McClure’s first, was filmed here, but I do not know by whom. Surely all of his novels are suited to feature film treatment or at least a retro TV series?

Richard Peck taught international relations at a US college. His own book, A Morbid Fascination (1997) in which he deals with a range of popular white writers, was reviewed in SARoB by Lindy Stiebel. He studied South African literature in order to understand the political culture of our country.

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Kramer and Zondi
by Richard Peck

by James McClure
Faber and Faber, London, 1993

The Song Dog
by James McClure
Faber and Faber, London, 1993

The Caterpillar Cop
by James McClure
Faber and Faber, London, 1993

The Steam Pig
by James McClure
Faber and Faber, London, 1994

Southern African Review of Books, Issue, 30, March/April 1994

The time has come for South Africans to discover one of their own: James McClure. Faber’s current release of paperback editions of some of his crime novels (Snake, 1993, The Song Dog, 1993, The Caterpillar Cop, 1993, The Steam Pig, 1994) will give an opportunity to those many South Africans who missed them the first time around. In the US and the UK he is one of the best-received South African crime writers; but his works disappeared with hardly a trace in the Republic when they first came out. Reviewed almost solely in Natal newspapers, they have not been at all easily available in the recent past. To judge from second-hand copies available, Wilbur Smith and Laurens van der Post outsold McClure by whole bookshelves full. Even Gordimer has him beat handily, and she doesn’t even write for the mass market.

The current popularity of Nair, Grease, Station 70, and Fairyland shows a nostalgia for simpler politics and melodious music. Although McClure’s mysteries have no melody, they will satisfy nostalgia for seeing criminals caught with a regularity that defies current expectations. And his treatment of 1970s and 1980s apartheid, if not simple, will at least make ‘new’ South Africans feel morally superior. Add his refusal to preach, a humour that forces guffaws, a sensitivity to complex human relationships, and an ability to convey layers of meaning in mere snippets of dialogue, and McClure should be a best-seller in South Africa. He now has a second chance to become one.

To be fair, in the 1970s McClure did have followers – both in leftist political circles in Johannesburg and among the South African Police in Pietermaritzburg (‘Trekkersburg’), where he grew up and where his crime novels are set. Peter Wilhelm, reviewing McClure’s The Artful Egg in the Financial Mail in 1985, reported that whenever he got a new McClure friends lined up to put their names on his borrowers’ list. But those few cognoscenti did not make McClure a South African best-seller writer.

McClure’s best work is his detective series starring Afrikaner Detective Lieutenant Tromp Kramer and Zulu ‘Bantu Detective’ Sergeant Michael Zondi of the Trekkersburg Murder and Robbery Squad. These books are not Wilbur Smith’s testosterone-driven fantasies of sex and bloodsports. They have moments of edge-of-the-seat suspense, and we do learn that Trompie Kramer is lusty. But his lust is largely confined to a dalliance with the Widow Fourie which inclines him on lazy mornings to send her children off on longish errands far from her bedroom. And rather than being stalked by perverted communists through Mozambique, Kramer and Zondi interview suspects and witnesses, drop by the morgue for post-mortem results, and follow leads and sift clues until they figure out whodunit.

As we watch them, South Africa’s recent history passes by in our peripheral vision. That the history lesson is never intrusive makes it the more effective.
McClure was inspired to write detective fiction because he:

welcomed the neutrality of the crime story. Every novel about South Africa that I’d come across until then had been self-limiting, I felt, in that its anti-apartheid slant had made it appeal only to the ‘converted’ … Crime or mystery novels, on the other hand, appealed to pretty well everyone. … This meant I could simply write ‘the way it was’ and leave people to make their own moral judgements while the point of the tale remained ‘who done it?’ (James McClure, ‘A Bright Grey,’ in Robin W. Winks (ed.) Colloquium on Crime: Eleven Renowned Mystery Writers Discuss Their Work (Scribner’s, New York, 1986), p. 188.)

McClure’s early years in South Africa prepared him to capture ‘the way it was’. In his youth he worked as a newspaper crime reporter and photographer, reporting on and photographing everything from Hindu weddings to Zulu boxers, and especially the South African police, in whose work he developed an abiding interest. He worked constantly, he says, in an effort to see everything; but by age 25 he ‘had seen too much’, and emigrated to the United Kingdom in 1965 with his wife and son, eventually settling in Oxford.

McClure put Tromp Kramer and Mickey Zondi to work on Trekkersburg’s crimes beginning with The Steam Pig in 1971. They worked their way through crime (and history) in The Caterpillar Cop (1972), The Gooseberry Fool (1974), Snake (1975), The Sunday Hangman (1977), The Blood of an Englishman (1980), and The Artful Egg (1984). Then in 1991 McClure published a ‘prequel’, The Song Dog, set in Natal in 1962. Along the way he also wrote one non-series novel set in Southern Africa, Rogue Eagle (1976).

Although McClure claimed to be presenting South Africa ‘as it is’, his novels critique apartheid. This has been common fare in South African high-culture literature, but is unusual in mass-market thrillers. Most thrillers are inherently conservative, forcing us to see solely from the hero’s point of view as he defends society against grave threats, but McClure bends the rules. Society is protected, but we see the rot at its core.

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Photo courtesy


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Mike Nicol</a>
    Mike Nicol
    July 18th, 2007 @10:05 #

    Rob, a quick trawl of the internet reveals no Steam Pig movie, so there is room for a local director to step in. It could be that McClure's duo set a convention for local crime writers in that Richard Kunzmann's first novel Bloody Harvests featurs Harry Mason and Jacob Tshabalala and Margie Orford's Like Clockwork has Dr Clare Hart (under contract to the cops) and Rediwaan Faizal. As the 'Rozencrantz and Guildenstern' twosome is such a successful device in crime fiction, there'll no doubt be more following in the footsteps of Tromp and Mickey. And surely Tim Keegan was paying homage to McClure with his Tromp's Last Stand!

  • Rob
    July 19th, 2007 @09:52 #

    I wonder if Tim Keegan was paying homage to McClure? If he was, then that homage completely backfired with me. Coupled with that appalling cover, it turned me off completely. I have not been able to bring myself to pick the book up in a book store.

    Yes, the police duo is enduring even when contemporary police now work in teams, the better to apply science and psychology (Waking the Dead; Silent Witness). Do we have any special forensic or cold case squads? Would have to ask Anthony Altbeker or Jonny Steinberg. Would a team make it more difficult for a crime author to write a novel or for a reader to identify with a character? I cannot think of any krimis that I have read recently that deal with teams. I am also intrigued to recall that McClure identified with Zondi, and apparently he had not noticed that until he started to reflect on crime writing after he left South Africa.


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