Out of Africa, a new wave of crime fiction

Cape Town's Roger Smith writes of vicious gangland violence and has been criticized by some for giving South Africa a bad name.
Cape Town's Roger Smith writes of vicious gangland violence and has been criticized by some for giving South Africa a bad name. (CLIVE SACKE / MCT)

Writers from the continent may be taking the role Scandinavians recently played: Leaders in the genre.

Posted: August 25, 2011

We sure have come a long way since Out of Africa and The Flame Trees of Thika.

In the second decade of the 21st century, some of the most compelling contemporary crime-fiction novels are either set in or coming from Africa. Much as Scandinavia became associated with the genre a few years back - thanks in large part to Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy - Africa may become a new capital of literary crime.

At the forefront is Roger Smith, a director and screenwriter who lives in Cape Town, South Africa, and writes with the brutal beauty of an Elmore Leonard in a very bad mood. His 2009 debut, Mixed Blood, has been optioned for a film starring Samuel L. Jackson and directed by Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger). His second book, Wake Up Dead, is also going Hollywood, with director Mark Tonderai (Hush) attached.

Meanwhile, his third novel, Dust Devils, has just been released as an e-book in the United States. All of this activity follows releases in the last year or so from Ghanaian-born/U.S.-based Kwei Quartey (Children of the Street), Nigeria's Adimchinma Ibe (Treachery in the Yard), and South Africa's Mike Nicol and Joanne Hichens, who write under the name Sam Cole (Cape Greed).

Coming in September are works from Deon Meyer (Trackers) and fellow South Africans Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, who write under the name Michael Stanley (Death of the Mantis: A Detective Kubu Mystery), and Kenyan-raised/U.S.-based Mukoma Wa Ngugi (Nairobi Heat).

Just as the works of James Ellroy and Carl Hiaasen dig beneath the glitter and glamour of Hollywood and South Beach to reveal a nasty, fetid underside, these books rip away images of the Sahara and safaris and go beyond nightly news pictures of deprivation and desperation.

While many Americans may have been introduced to the idea of African-set crime fiction through Alexander McCall Smith's polite The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency books and the subsequent HBO series, some of this new wave is far less soft-centered and more hard-boiled, less nice and more noir.

Smith, 51, came of age in Johannesburg as a fan of American noir writers like Jim Thompson. But he was wary of trying his hand at it.

"I grew up in South Africa during the apartheid era, and, if you wanted to talk about crime, you had to talk about the biggest crime there was - apartheid," he says by phone from Thailand, where he spends part of the year. "To write crime fiction in the classic sense, about guys shooting each other over money, would have been inappropriate."

But after apartheid officially was lifted in 1994, Smith, who is white, began to think that the time might be right, and about five years ago he sat down to write Mixed Blood. He certainly had enough inspiration from his surroundings; crime often dominates the headlines in Johannesburg and Cape Town. He writes of a world of residual racism and vicious gangland violence, the latter often fueled by tik, the South African version of meth.

It's a hellish vision that has earned him criticism from some South Africans who feel he gives the place a bad name.

"Sadly, South Africa creates a negative impression of itself," he says. "Statistics don't lie, and the crime statistics for South Africa are really shocking, especially when it comes to violent crime. . . .

"What I try to do with all my books is to give those statistics a face, to force the reader into the world of someone who ends up being one of those statistics. That's the role that crime fiction plays. It is entertainment, sure, but it can create debate about those things."

For Smith, the discussion is not just academic. His wife, who is of mixed race, grew up in Cape Flats, a sprawling, dusty, impoverished area far from iconic Table Mountain and the ritzy neighborhoods that hug the ocean.

"My knowledge of the Flats is informed by a lot of the years that we've been together," Smith says. "It was a culture that I steeped myself in. There were incredible stories that weren't being told. That division between beauty and privilege and unbelievable hardship and deprivation made for good drama and good stories."

While some whites have castigated Smith for his point of view, he says mixed-race and black readers are more understanding.

"The response from the Flats has been really good," he says. "People have never read anything that captures the atmosphere of the place quite the way my books have."

That atmosphere may be too bleak for American publishers. While his first two books were published by Henry Holt, Dust Devils - about a Cape Town man, with a dad from Texas, who is turned into an avenging angel after his family is slaughtered - is available only as an e-book.

For Ngugi, who was born in the United States, crime fiction was one of the few options available during Kenya's Daniel arap Moi regime of the '80s.

"During the Moi dictatorship, a lot of literary writers went into exile," Ngugi, 40, says in a phone interview from his Connecticut home. "Most of my generation, we read Shakespeare and African classics, but it was popular fiction that took the place of literary fiction."

Now, with Nairobi Heat, which was published by Penguin in South Africa in 2009 and is being published in the United States by Melville House in September, Ngugi gets to join the ranks of crime writers he has long admired. In the book, he tells the story of Ishmael, an African American detective who has to go to Kenya to investigate a case.

"I've always wanted to pay homage to that genre, and what those writers could do was sneak politics in," says Ngugi, the son of Kenyan novelist/critic Ngugi wa Thiong'o, a political columnist for BBC's Focus on Africa magazine and, until recently, a part-time lecturer and fellow in the English department at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio. "I was able to deal with issues, as the detective is African American, so there are issues of race, and then [when he goes to Kenya], there are issues of identity of poverty.

"Like with Walter Mosley and Devil in a Blue Dress, he was able to seamlessly bring in African American issues and issues of race and class."

Ngugi, who's working on a Nairobi Heat sequel, is aware that there appears to be a wider market for African fiction, including crime fiction, these days.

"African fiction is very popular, generally speaking," he says. "For the younger generation of writers, there are more avenues."

He says writers in Kenya, which he visits yearly, are much freer than when he was coming up. But, he says, African fiction is hamstrung by lingering stereotypes.

"I don't know if there's a ready market for hard-core, violent, and hard-hitting African fiction," he says. "Ultimately, there's this idea that African literature has to be functional and deal with issues of colonialism. But we have to allow it to be many things - science fiction, detective fiction. We have to allow it to flourish and go in any direction."

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