Tuesday, January 24, 2012

James McClure, THE SUNDAY HANGMAN: South African Detection

What a pleasure to read THE SUNDAY HANGMAN by James McClure (Soho Crime, Feb. 2012). Set in "apartheid" South Africa, around the 1970s, this is the sixth of McClure's eight books that feature Lieutenant Tromp Kramer of the Trekkersburg Murder and Robbery Squad and his sidekick, Bantu Detective Sergeant Mickey Zondi. The partnership of the two police officers -- one living in white comfort, with hot running water for baths, and a servant to make tea; the other scraping by with his wife in a dirt-floored home and a tin bath filled with a few gallons by hand (a perfect contrast provided early in this book) -- blesses the series with that special tenderness of grown men who care desperately about each other's welfare but are restricted to showing it through the equivalent of the American punch on the shoulder.

And, of course, through intense loyalty on the job, to each other and to their principles. And that explains why those who discover the McClure series are likely to become passionate followers, disappointed when they've consumed all eight books. (McClure died in 2006. He'd been a photographer, then a teacher, then a crime reporter.) The books won the Crime Writers Association (CWA) Silver Dagger and Gold Dagger awards. Soho Crime has been quietly bringing them to the US, and THE SUNDAY HANGMAN debuts in paperback in February.

The book opens with the unexpected death of a lifelong criminal named Tollie Erasmus. When Lieutenant Kramer hears that Erasmus committed suicide, he's frankly incredulous. Why would Tollie Erasmus hang himself, when he's got thousands to live on and has eluded South Africa's penal system? Because of the powerful class divisions in South Africa, and the multiple languages that go with them -- Afrikaans and English on one side, Bantu and other "native" languages on the other -- Kramer takes Mickey Zondi with him to investigate the rural death. And with Doc Strydom riding along, it's soon clear that the death is murder, not suicide.

But Doc Strydom pulls more out of police and court records, in a search to justify his outspoken decision on the death, and soon Kramer and Zondi are making multiple trips among Johannesburg, Durban, and the little rural hamlet of Witklip, trying to find points in common between this fresh death and other disturbing notes in the files.

This is a lively and compelling read, as well as a reminder of how desperate the apartheid situation was, so recently. The blatant and crushing racism of that time shows up in even the smallest casual conversations in THE SUNDAY HANGMAN, although McClure weaves it deftly into the narrative within a paternalism that feels a lot like a Kipling story. But the dangers of the racial prejudices show up in crimes and their investigation, and McClure spins a good tale.

Here's the entire series with its original release dates:
The Steam Pig (1971)
The Caterpillar Cop (1972)
The Gooseberry Fool (1974)
Snake (1975)
Rogue Eagle (1976)
The Sunday Hangman (1977)
The Blood of an Englishman (1980)
The Song Dog (1991)
For a good overview of the past fifty years of mysteries set in Africa (and published in English), try this article from Verna Suit at Mystery Readers International (2010).

From the review article, I was reminded that Henning Mankell's book The White Lioness (1993) is set in South Africa, as is Suzanne Arruda's Jade del Cameron series. I'm also a fan of a modern-day South Africa series by Jassy Mackenzie: Random Violence (2010), Stolen Lives (2011), and due out in April of this year, The Fallen (watch for more on that title later).

If you've been reading the Botswana series by Alexander McCall Smith, featuring the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, you'll find the McClure series more gritty and challenging. But underneath the two series is the same love of place, people, and the possibility of justice.

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