- A Survey of South African Crime Fiction: Critical Analysis and Publishing History by Sam Naidu and Elizabeth Le Roux
BY SAM NAIDU AND ELIZABETH LE ROUX
U of KwaZulu-Natal P, 2017.
vii + 200 pages. ISBN 9781869143558 paper.
A Survey of South African Crime Fiction makes an original and important contribution to the study of South African crime fiction, a genre that is very popular by South African standards, yet has been the object of few book-length studies. The book covers an impressive amount of ground: it provides both a literary and publishing history, considers the reception of crime fiction, examines the characteristics of various subgenres, offers a detailed analysis of individual literary [End Page 259] works—which include novels by Andrew Brown, Wessel Ebersohn, Michiel Heyns, Deon Meyer, and Margie Orford—and finally explores several important themes, including gender relations and ecocritical discourse. Moving beyond debates about whether crime fiction should be considered lowbrow or highbrow, the book contends that it is both aesthetically and politically important. On the one hand, Sam Naidu and Elizabeth le Roux argue for the need to suspend normative value judgments about crime fiction; on the other hand, they are invested in illustrating the importance of the crime novel, which they describe as "the new political novel in South Africa," as a vehicle for social critique. Rather than being reduceable to a transparent repository of specific ideological impulses, le Roux and Naidu argue, South African crime fiction transcends conventional expectations and displays ideological ambiguities. In the process, A Survey of South African Crime Fiction provides an illuminating analysis of the intricate workings of patriarchy in South African crime fiction, but displays a reluctance to also examine how the structural and ideological force of racism continues to centrally animate South African writing.
Chapter one provides an extensive publication history, which challenges the misconception that crime fiction is a new genre in South Africa. While the authors concede that its mainstream popularity originated with the publication of Deon Meyer's first novel, Wie met Vuur Speel (1994), they show that in South Africa the genre goes back at least to Bertram Mitford's The Weird of Deadly Hollow: A Tale of the Cape Colony (1899). Chapter two offers a valuable literary introduction to the genre and its specific South African variants, focusing in particular on the literary detective novel. Naidu and le Roux contend that, different from its predecessors such as Edgar Allan Poe's Auguste Dupin and Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, whose power of reason assured the consistent success of their investigative endeavors, many South African detectives are misguided "anti-detectives," so that the South African "anti-detective novel" presents a critique of the discourse of reason itself.
Considering the ideological work that crime fiction performs in society and focusing especially on Ebersohn's novels, chapter three argues that crime fiction is ideologically ambiguous. The chapter mentions that Ebersohn's post-apartheid novels critique affirmative action but does not problematize this fact, even as this suggests that the novels are not ideologically ambiguous, but invested in reproducing whiteness. Chapter four moves onto the reception of South African crime fiction, using marketing, advertisement, paratext, and book reviews as proxies for readership. Chapter five considers how the South African thriller and farm crime novels engage the colonial and apartheid past. Naidu and le Roux argue that post-apartheid South African crime fiction is ideologically ambiguous because (white) writers aim to expose what the authors call "the 'rottenness' of the post-apartheid state" without over-simplifying "the complex histories that inform and shape the 'new' dispensation" (95). However, in confining racism to the past and turning the farm into "a symbol of the white farmers' vulnerability, of ongoing injustices and inequities" (109), Meyer and Ebersohn's post-apartheid novels, rather than being ideologically ambiguous, mystify the ongoing reality of white privilege in South Africa and reproduce the racist discourse of white injury, which portrays white people as victims in the current racial order.
Chapter six provides an incisive analysis of gender politics in contemporary South African crime fiction, focusing mainly...