Crime wave on the rise

“Crime writing sells all over the world,” says Jill van Zyl, a director of Exclusive Books, South Africa’s largest book retailer.

“International crime writers sell very well in South Africa. From a bookseller’s point of view, you can compare crime writing with cookery books. People buy cookbooks in great numbers and yet everybody goes out for dinner! With crime—we’re surrounded by it and yet people love to read it.
Locally Red Ink, a chilling novel about a serial killer, by Angela Makholwa and published locally by Macmillan, has also done reasonably well. Deon Meyer (Hodder & Stoughton) does well, people know him now and they wait for the next one. It is definitely a growing market,” says Van Zyl.

South Africa’s pristine literary beach has been swept recently by a wave of local crime fiction. When Andrew Brown’s Coldsleep Lullaby won the 2006 Sunday Times Fiction Award, it put South African crime fiction in the spotlight. South African crime writing has been making small waves on the international market, too. Deon Meyer’s crime novels, translated into 13 languages, have been selling internationally since 1997. The rights to two of my own books—Like Clockwork and Blood Rose (just published in South Africa by Oshun)—have been sold in German, Dutch, Russian and Czech in 2008. To date no United Kingdom or United States deal, but there is always the hope of cracking a notoriously crowded market, one that Richard Kunzman succeeded in without first publishing in South Africa.

Kunzman has two books featuring his black and white cop duo under his belt: Bloody Harvest and Salamander Cotton (Pan Macmillan). Dead End Road, the last in the Harry Mason & Jacob Tshabalala trilogy, is out next year.

“My first book’s success was based on a macabre confluence of events,” says Johannesburg-based Kunzman. “I pitched the story (a tale of muti killings) in the first three weeks after I arrived in England and two months after the first muti killing was discovered in London. A child’s torso had been found in the Thames and the subsequent investigation captured the imagination of many Londoners. To me it was luck that I should pitch a story in line with this event, one I didn’t even know about. To my publishers it was a marketing platform waiting to happen.”

So, is selling crime fiction simply a matter of being in the right place at the right time? “No,” says Rebecca Servadio Kenan, who works with one of London’s most eminent scouts, Koukla MacLehose, reading for publishers from Finland to Greece.

“Crime fiction has a wide appeal and, when well written, travels well. On the surface it is light, it is enjoyable and easily accessible to most readers: tourism with a twist and a bite in its tail. Good crime fiction is a melting pot of sociology, history, anthropology and contemporary society and politics, all of this supported by a plot and a lead character who is sympathetic and likeable. The fact that it is translated or imported from another country should only be incidental and an added bonus after the gratification for the reader of having been engaged by and totally absorbed in the crime at hand.

“Henning Mankell, Karin Fossum, Thomas Cooke, Arnaldur Idridason, Fred Vargas, Andrea Camilleri, Boris Akunin and Peter Temple are fantastic authors who write about their realities, be they Scandinavian, American, European, Russian or Australian.”

So, what is turning South African writers to crime? I put this question to Mike Nicol, co-author with Joanne Hichens of Out to Score (Umuzi), creative writing lecturer at the University of Cape Town and founder of the blog www.crimebeat.co.za.

“We are normalising as a society and now have ‘permission’ to entertain ourselves” says Nicol. “But our crime fiction is in its infancy. It is a tough, honest genre where you must want to write this sort of fiction. But we are a long way off creating a market for ourselves in, say, the way the Australians have done with their crime fiction. We need prizes. We need more serious attention in the media. In a way the crime beat blog was an attempt to give us a forum for these sorts of debates.”

Does crime pay? Therein lies the rub. The South African reading public is small, so for a professional writer international sales are essential. Although I found the first round of sales—brilliantly orchestrated by my agent, Isobel Dixon—overwhelming, especially when I learned that the first German print run would be 100 000 copies. I asked Rebecca Servadio Kenan why she thought my work had sold internationally. She was nice enough to say that it was good, that “the stories are gripping, contemporary and of interest whatever one’s reality”. But, she said, and this is key, it is “because you have an agent who is dedicated and thorough and successfully raising your profile”.

This brought to mind the (probably apocryphal) story about Paul Getty and an enthusiastic journalist. “Mr Getty,” the journalist asked at the end of an interview. “What advice would you give a man wanting to make money?”

“Wake up early,” said the billionaire to the young man, writing as if his life depended on it. “Work hard.” Getty paused and the eager journalist looked up at him, pen poised. “Discover an oil field.”

There you have it. A good agent is the literary equivalent of Getty’s oil field. But you are not going to get one of those without getting up early and working very, very hard.

Margie Orford’s new Clare Hart thriller, Blood Rose (Oshun), is out this month.

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