Crime fiction not an escapist genre

There’s a move afoot locally to hustle crime fiction into the thriller category. Evangelisers of this new gospel say crime is too stark a reminder of contemporary South Africa realities.

But so it should be. What’s the point of a wholly escapist genre, divorced from the fabric of social, economic and political realities and drawing conveniently on only “nice” things such as locale, cuisine, culture and viniculture?

Besides which, thriller is something more readily associated with Robert Ludlum and Frederick Forsyth, although the latter features under the “spy fiction” entry in The Oxford Companion to English Literature. Alongside Forsyth is John le Carré, whose latest, A Most Wanted Man (Harvill Secker), is a devastating critique of the state of post-Cold War espionage, and of its devalued ethics. Yes, there was honour among spies, but as Le Carré shows, it disappeared since the United States arrogated to itself supralegal powers of arrest and detention.

Another old master, PD James, loses not a trick in her latest, The Private Patient (Faber and Faber). As ever, this is billed as “An Adam Dalgleish Mystery”: note the deliberate and accurate removal from the realm of the run-of-the-mill (detective fiction) and the extravagant (thriller). That notwithstanding, James provides her hallmark blend, examining the mysteries of the human heart and mind in her trademark remote setting (akin always to a locked-room murder) with real terror rather than mere thrills.

Place is integral to James — whether an isolated island (The Lighthouse), or headland (Death in Holy Orders), or self-contained worlds in the midst of urban sprawl (Original Sin and The Murder Room). Place and time are crucial also to RN Morris, who brings Dostoevsky’s investigating magistrate Porfiry Petrovich brilliantly to life in A Vengeful Longing (Faber), the second in the self-styled “A St Petersburg Mystery” series. Paying due acknowledgement to Dostoevsky this time round, Morris’s filigree recreation plunges us into 19th-century St Petersburg and a rash of poisonings and deeply hidden motivations.

Iceland’s unfortunate irruption into the global credit crunch had me reading Arctic Chill (Harvill Secker), the new Arnaldur Indridason police procedural, with even greater interest. Reykjavik’s fictional finest, Inspector Erlendur, uncovers anti-immigrant tensions in the Icelandic capital while tracking down the killers of a young Thai boy.

It is impossible to pigeonhole So Brave, Young, and Handsome by Leif Enger (Quercus). It is about detection and discovery. It has mystery and a remorselessly pursuing Pinkerton agent. It is all of those and so much more; elegy to the Western, cowboy caper, rite of passage, romance, and wry meditation on writing. Enger’s book is brave, vital and handsome and demands to be read.

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years. We’ve survived thanks to the support of our readers, we will need you to help us get through this.

To help us ensure another 35 future years of fiercely independent journalism, please subscribe.

Advertisting

‘Frustrated’ police resort to force

Regulation uncertainty leaves slap-happy police and soldiers to decide when people should or shouldn’t be allowed on the streets

Mail & Guardian needs your help

Our job is to help give you the information we all need to participate in building this country, while holding those in power to account. But now the power to help us keep doing that is in your hands

Press Releases

New energy mix on the cards

REI4P already has and will continue to yield thousands of employment opportunities

The online value of executive education in a Covid-19 world

Executive education courses further develop the skills of leaders in the workplace

Sisa Ntshona urges everyone to stay home, and consider travelling later

Sisa Ntshona has urged everyone to limit their movements in line with government’s request

SAB Zenzele’s special AGM postponed until further notice

An arrangement has been announced for shareholders and retailers to receive a 77.5% cash payout

20th Edition of the National Teaching Awards

Teachers are seldom recognised but they are indispensable to the country's education system

Awards affirm the vital work that teachers do

Government is committed to empowering South Africa’s teachers with skills, knowledge and techniques for a changing world

SAB Zenzele special AGM rescheduled to March 25 2020

New voting arrangements are being made to safeguard the health of shareholders