Every once in a while, the discovery that somebody has died really throws you off kilter--not just because you realize they’re no longer a factor in the world’s development, but because you didn’t even know they were still alive. For me, crime novelist and journalist James McClure was just such a person. The author of eight police procedurals set in apartheid-era South Africa and starring a racially mixed pair of sleuths, Afrikaan Lieutenant Tromp Kramer of the Murder and Robbery Squad and his Zulu assistant, Sergeant Mickey Zondi, McClure apparently perished due to respiratory failure on June 17 in Oxford, England. He was 66 years old.
Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1939, McClure became a newspaperman and moved to Britain in 1965, where he joined the Scottish Daily Mail and later The Oxford Times. In 1971, he saw published his first novel, The Steam Pig, which introduced Kramer and Zondi in an apartheid-inspired story revolving around a character who turns to crime after he and his family are reclassified from white to “coloured,” losing their standing as well as many of their privileges in the process. The book won the Gold Dagger Award from the British Crime Writers’ Association (CWA), and that acclaim, combined with the critical success of his second Kramer-Zondi adventure, The Caterpillar Cop (1972), convinced McClure to retire from newspapering in 1974 in order to become a full-time novelist. He went on to compose Snake (1975), The Sunday Hangman (1977--the only one of his novels to be banned in South Africa), and his final installment in that mystery series, The Song Dog (1991), which was also a prequel, revealing how Kramer and Zondi originally got together in 1962.
In addition, McClure wrote three non-series novels, including one set in South Africa, Rogue Eagle (1976), which picked up the CWA Silver Dagger. He also penned a trio of non-fiction books, the last of which was Copworld: Policing on the Streets of San Diego (1985). After that, though, he returned to journalism. In 2000, McClure became the editor of The Oxford Mail, but was compelled to retire in 2003, due to poor health. According to Wikipedia, he was working on a novel set in Oxford at the time of his demise.
McClure was a pioneer of sorts, exposing the natural beauty and ugly social contradictions of apartheid-era South Africa through the framework of crime fiction. He was by no means responsible for the overthrow of racial segregation at the southern end of Africa, but he did give the world a look at the roots and consequences of those practices that helped people elsewhere understand what was happening, when the legal apparatus of apartheid eventually collapsed in the early 1990s. Without James McClure’s authorial groundbreaking, there’s no telling whether readers would have been quite so receptive to the later work of South African novelists such as Deon Meyer (Dead Before Dying).
READ MORE: “Obituary: James McClure” (The Guardian); “James McClure, 1939-2006” (Mystery*File); “The Book You Have to Read: The Song Dog, by James McClure,” by Stanley Trollip (The Rap Sheet).