Friday, June 18, 2010

The Book You Have to Read:
“The Song Dog,” by James McClure

(Editor’s note: This is the 98th installment of our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s reading pick comes from South African-born retired professor Stanley Trollip, who--with Michael Sears--writes a popular series featuring Detective David “Kubu” Bengu of the Botswana Criminal Investigation Department. The first installment in their series was A Carrion Death (2008), followed by last year’s The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu.)

James McClure is generally regarded as the father of South African mystery writing. He was born in South Africa in 1939, and was employed there as a teacher and reporter before moving with his family to England in 1965. For the most part, he worked in Great Britain as a journalist and was editor of The Oxford Times, when it won Weekly Newspaper of the Year honors in 1997. Later McClure became editor of The Oxford Mail. He died of a respiratory illness in 2006. He was 66 years old.

McClure was also a highly successful writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and is best known for his Kramer and Zondi series. It began in 1971 with the publication of The Steam Pig and ended with The Song Dog in 1991, which was actually a prequel to that initial work.

The Steam Pig was an immediate triumph, winning the Gold Dagger Award from the British Crime Writers’ Association in 1971. In it an attractive young woman, Theresa le Roux, dies of apparently natural causes and in the normal course of events should have been cremated. But in a typical mess up, she is given a full postmortem, during which it is discovered that she was actually murdered--by someone sliding a bicycle spoke between her third and fourth ribs. She seemingly has very little past, no friends, and lives very quietly. The only apparent leads are a tinted contact lenses and an old lady who was heard asking questions a few days after the funeral. That lady later disappears at the bus station, after giving a false address.

The Song Dog is my favorite McClure novel. Not only does it have a good plot and great characters, but the white police protagonist, Lieutenant Tromp Kramer, visits a black woman witch doctor in the Zululand hills to help solve his case. I really like that twist, because witch doctors play such an influential role in South African black society. It is a great touch to have a white policeman acknowledge this and use it to his advantage.

In the story, a young white housewife and a respected police officer are blown to bits when dynamite explodes under her isolated home. Kramer is called in from his hometown of Trekkersburg to investigate. Is the killer the housewife’s jealous husband, or was the husband in fact the intended target? It’s Kramer’s job to learn the truth, even though he is hampered by incompetent and self-serving colleagues and associates. It is in this prequel that Kramer first meets Bantu Detective Sergeant Mickey Zondi, who is roaming the vicinity of Kramer’s case, investigating a serial killer who may be his own cousin. Kramer and Zondi keep crossing paths, until Kramer finally appropriates Zondi’s help for his own case.

In 1971, South Africa was governed by the laws of apartheid. Those were designed to separate the races and minimize the education and job opportunities available to blacks. In a sense, McClure thumbed his nose at the government in his mystery series by having his white police lieutenant, Kramer, work openly with a black, Zulu partner, Sergeant Zondi. Although such partnerships did exist, making them public was rarely done.

The eight books in this series are set in and around a fictitious town, Trekkersburg. It is a typical South African town of the time, with whites in control of all aspects of life. Other races, such as Indians and blacks, enjoy inferior positions in the social, economic, and political hierarchy, with blacks occupying the bottom rung. McClure captures all of this with accuracy and humor. He also depicts the hypocrisy of the dominant Afrikaans-speaking ruling party, whose moral positions were conveniently flexible. During my university days in South Africa in the late 1960s, socializing between the races was almost impossible. Myriad laws were enacted to minimize inter-racial contact and any amorous association between whites and blacks was actually illegal. Yet, if one traveled across the border to Swaziland, for example, it was generally Afrikaners--the strongest supporters of apartheid--who were picking up black prostitutes. “Going for a taste of chocolate” was the crass way this was described.

Readers of McClure’s books today are often shocked by the language--the word “kaffir,” used to talk about blacks in South Africa, is equivalent to “nigger” in the United States. Afrikaners, in particular, had no compunction about using it to someone’s face.

The following connected extracts from The Song Dog capture the attitudes of that era. In the first, Kramer promises not to share a secret.
“Listen,” said Claasens, “I’m just going to have to tell you the whole thing, but you mustn’t repeat it to another soul, not ever. Do you promise? Only the Colonel, me, and Suzman were meant to ever know this.”

“Why not Terblanche as well?”

“Huh! Hans is such a bloody Christian these days you can’t trust him with anything, hey? Do you promise'?”

“Fine, not another soul,” said Kramer.
However, Kramer has complete trust in his partner, Mickey Zondi, and needs to find a way to share the secret without breaking his promise.
Zondi sat up and looked around him. “It’s okay for me to speak again, Lieutenant?”

“Ja, fine,” said Kramer, pulling his tie loose and undoing his collar. “But be prepared, hey, to answer the Big Question ...”

“Which is, boss?”

“Tell me, when the Almighty made kaffirs, did he give them souls, hey?”

“The boss means the same as the white man?”

“Uh-huh, of course.”

Hau, God would never do such a terrible thing, Lieutenant.”

“Excellent,” said Kramer, “no man likes to break a solemn promise. Now you just listen to this, kaffir, and don’t you bloody interrupt until I’m finished, you hear?”
Kramer then shares the secret so they can pursue their quarry together.

McClure’s books look at life in South Africa with a keen eye, including aspects that some non-South African readers may find difficult to relate to, particularly the presence of witch doctors. Witchcraft is common in southern Africa--often in a very positive way--and plays a prominent role in the life of blacks, educated or not. To ignore it would be to miss an important part of local culture. McClure recognizes this and handles it adroitly, particularly in The Song Dog.

The plots of McClure’s books are also strong, with enough twists and turns to keep readers and detectives alike guessing as to who the culprits are. They are plausible and interesting, with a range of people who reflect the usual quirks of society.

The book titles in this series are:

The Steam Pig (1971)
The Caterpillar Cop (1972)
The Gooseberry Fool (1974)
Snake (1975)
The Sunday Hangman (1977)
The Blood of an Englishman (1980)
The Artful Egg (1984), which found a place on The Times list of “100 Best Crime Novels of the 20th Century.”
The Song Dog (1991)

McClure also wrote a standalone thriller, Rogue Eagle (1976), which won a Silver Dagger. In it, a group of white South Africans use the neighboring country, Lesotho, to hatch a plot to overthrow their apartheid government--not because it is so racist, but because the group believes it is becoming too liberal!

In addition to his fiction, McClure wrote a pair of highly regarded non-fiction books, Spike Island (1980) and Cop World (1984). Those looked at the operations and functioning of the police forces in Merseyside, England, and San Diego, California, respectively. Both books give readers a glimpse of the people who wear the uniforms.

James McClure was a wonderful writer, who is becoming forgotten in the flood of new titles (although Soho Crime is reissuing both The Steam Pig and The Caterpillar Cop this summer in the States). In his books, readers will find interesting plots, a great sense of place, and plenty of wry humor. As with many classics, the Kramer and Zondi series, in particular, is worth revisiting.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, Mr. Trollip, for writing this, and thank you, Mr. Pierce, for publishing this.

I've been trying to work my way through the Kramer/Zondi novels in order of publication; I haven't gotten to *The Song Dog* yet because I'm having trouble finding some of the previous novels.

I agree, and it saddens me, that McClure's work seems on the verge of being forgotten. I'm delighted to hear about the reissues from Soho, and I hope they'll continue after the first two books.

Frank Loose said...

I just started reading Song Dog last night. How's that for timing?