For most readers, African crime fiction begins and ends with Alexander McCall Smith. His wonderful, internationally bestselling No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, which debuted in the U.S. in 1998, presents localized if significant problems of daily living that Precious Ramotswe, the agency’s founder and main detective, sorts out with infinite patience and compassion for human foibles.
But there’s much more to African crime fiction than the engaging exploits of the woman who has been dubbed “the Miss Marple of Botswana,” and Smith deserves credit for opening the door for other contemporary African crime writers from across the continent, such as Malla Nunn, Richard Kunzmann, Michael Stanley (the duo of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip), Kwei Quartey, and Deon Meyer.
According to Kunzmann (Bloody Harvests, Macmillan, 2005), who was born in Namibia but grew up in South Africa, where he sets his novels, “Until McCall Smith came along, publishers and agents had no ‘benchmark’ to hitch an African crime author to, and so found buying African crime risky. The rest of the world still associates Africa with incredibly gloomy topics—apartheid, genocide, civil war, and famine—horrible clichés that would be challenged by anyone who has been to the continent and spent time with its people. McCall Smith did a great deal to show the lighter side of Africa.”
The earliest mystery novels set in Africa were, unsurprisingly, the fruit of Western labors. In the 1930s, Elspeth Huxley, the daughter of British colonial settlers who brought her to Kenya in the early 20th century, wrote three mysteries, including Murder at Government House, where a hyena disposes of a corpse. Perhaps the first major crime writer from Africa was James McClure, a British author born and raised in South Africa, who won both the Gold (for The Steam Pig in 1971) and Silver (for the spy novel Rogue Eagle, 1976) Daggers from the British Crime Writers Association. McClure partnered an Afrikaner police lieutenant, Tromp Kramer, with Bantu Det. Sgt. Mickey Zondi, in eight books set during apartheid’s heyday, which were published between 1971 and 1991.
Malla Nunn, a native of Swaziland, has used her filmmaker’s eyes to author two standout historical whodunits, A Beautiful Place to Die (Atria, 2009) and Let the Dead Lie (Washington Square, 2010), featuring Emmanuel Cooper, a former soldier and police sergeant. Her books take place in the 1950s. Nunn wanted to “explore, through crime fiction, the crippling racial segregation laws that forced my parents out of Southern Africa.” (Her third in the series, Blessed Are the Dead, is due in 2012).
Deon Meyer, who writes in Afrikaans and whose works have been translated into 20 languages, won the 2010 Martin Beck Award (for best crime novel in translation) for Devil’s Peak (Little, Brown), conferred by the Swedish Academy of Crime Writers. In September’s Trackers (Atlantic Monthly), turf battles among South Africa’s intelligence agencies connect with an Islamic terrorist plot and a scheme to smuggle out black rhinos from Zimbabwe to protect them from poachers. South African Wessel Ebersohn’s The October Killings (Minotaur, Jan. 2011) brings back, after several decades, prison psychologist Yudel Gordon to confront the aftershocks of a raid on an African National Congress safe house.
In 2010, Jassy Mackenzie debuted with Random Violence (Soho), with the compelling PI Jade de Jong, who returns to South Africa to avenge her father’s death. In her second outing, The Fallen, de Jong searches for the murderer of a scuba diving instructor (Soho, Apr. 2012).
South Africa is currently producing the most crime fiction published in the United States. Says Kunzmann, who has paired Johannesburg-based black and white investigators Jacob Tshabalala and Harry Mason (most recently in 2008’s Dead-End Road), “South Africa is a very Westernized country, even compared to Kenya, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe. It has a well-developed publishing infrastructure, too.” And no shortage of real-life material to draw upon for South African authors, from armed gangs who hijack entire buildings and charge rent to the tenants, to police commissioners implicated in murder and narcotics trafficking.
Other countries in sub-Saharan Africa are increasingly being represented. Death of the Mantis (Harper, Sept.), Michael Stanley’s third book showcasing police detective David Bengu, offers a very un–McCall Smith–like take on present-day Botswana as it examines present-day prejudices against Bushmen in that country. And Children of the Street (Random, July), Ghana native Kwei Quartey’s second whodunit starring Det. Insp. Darko Dawson, provides a piercing look at the lives of desperation hidden beneath the patina of Ghana’s cosmopolitan capital city, Accra, along with the search for a twisty serial killer preying on teenagers. Quartey’s third book, 2012’s Men of the Rig, focuses on Ghana’s pursuit of riches through offshore oil wells. The Rwandan genocide is at the heart of Nairobi Heat (Melville House, Sept.) by Mukoma Wa Ngugi, a political journalist who grew up in Kenya.
Mystery subgenres are also represented. South African Peter Godfrey is master of the impossible crime story and a literary heir to John Dickson Carr and Ellery Queen. Layton Green’s The Summoner (First Ward, 2010) has a U.S. diplomat disappear in front of hundreds of onlookers while attending a religious ceremony in Zimbabwe. There’s even science fiction/fantasy crime—Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City (Angry Robot, 2010), which imagines an alternative Johannesburg where criminals are attached to an animal familiar by magic, took home the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award.
Magic often plays a part in mystery novels set in this world. Quartey’s debut, 2009’s Wife of the Gods, incorporated the supernatural in the story line; although Ghana is very modern, magical powers, curses, and witchcraft are still very real and widespread, even to “people high up in government and in academia.” Of South Africa, Kunzmann asks, rhetorically, “Where else might you find bank robbers that steal millions of dollars in cash heists, have 20-inch plasma screens and shiny BMWs, but carry no protective gear but for the magic charms that a sangoma (a practitioner of herbal medicine, divination, and counseling) has promised will ward off bullets fired by their enemies?”
The role of magic in African societies helps make some African serial killers different. While the demons driving the serial killer in Margie Orford’s Blood Rose (Corvus, Mar.) would be familiar to readers of Thomas Harris, the manifestations of the violence, which can include magical medicine made from human body parts and elements of ancestral worship, wouldn’t be found elsewhere.
African crime fiction offers an interesting contrast to the mystery genre flavor of the moment: Scandinavian crime fiction. The differences between crime stories set in Stockholm and ones set in Accra run much deeper than the detective’s clothing. Socialist countries’ economically secure societies allow for greater contrasts between order and disorder, but when a country’s regime is endemically corrupt, or where the shadow of colonial paternalism still casts a pall and racial tensions linger, the representatives of the law may not have much order watching their backs. Intriguingly, in Africa, fiction is often less violent than truth; the two men who are Michael Stanley observe that “in Iceland, more murders take place in a year in the excellent novels written there than actually occur in real life, while South Africa has the second-highest murder rate in the world.”
In assessing the future, “There’s a good chance that a superstar will emerge in our generation of writers,” Kunzmann believes. “The quality of writing in the genre is leapfrogging since the new wave of South African crime writers appeared in the early 2000s.” Readers drawn in by the mix of crime and the politics of the immediate in countries that are still finding their way will have plenty of intriguing choices.
Lenny Picker is a freelance writer living in New York City.