James McClure Essay - Critical Essays


Rather than emphasize the obvious political contexts of his South African crime novels, James McClure focused on providing his readers with the straightforward entertainment of detection. Clues are not withheld, but the rationale for the solutions to which they lead is so deeply enmeshed in apartheid that one leaves the resolution of a case knowing who committed the crime but pondering circumstance and motive in an effort to understand why it was committed—even when a superficial answer is readily apparent. Weaving observations of daily survival, the historical background, and the social tensions of life in South Africa into exposition, dialogue, and description, McClure, like antiapartheid novelist Naomi Stride, who was later murdered, did in The Artful Egg (1984), kept the political undertones oblique. Consequently, the polemical themes of much South African fiction are muted, and the novels are not so much subversive as they are compassionate toward all races suffering from the bleakness of a rigidly racist society.

McClure maintained his neutral stance by means of a shifting point of view controlled by the perspective of his characters. Although he avoided explicit judgment of the society he described, he nevertheless showed so much of South African life that, once having been offered the material, his readers were virtually compelled to arrive at their own moral judgments. Scene shifts are rapid and diverse; Kramer and Zondi often pursue parallel and sometimes related cases that take them into the country as well as through various sections of the city, bringing them into contact with blacks and whites, rich and poor. Besides describing the center of these diverse scenes, Central Intelligence Division headquarters, McClure, throughout the series, developed portraits of a rural Zulu village, a library, an illicit township drinking house (shebeen), the city council chambers, a liberal’s mansion, a white nationalist’s farm, a township shack, a zoological institute, a prostitute’s bungalow, a forensic laboratory, a prison gallows, an apartheid hospital, and a decaying resort, among many other locales. His precise details and evocative images are interspersed so carefully among plot development, characterization, and exposition that readers are never distracted from Kramer and Zondi’s detective work, yet each scene, on reflection, reveals the subtle effects of apartheid.

McClure’s knack for shifting the point of view in his scenes permitted his characters, even minor ones, to express their values through dialogue and in the contextual narration that reflected attitudes varying from crude, overt racism to blind revolutionary zeal. Many of Kramer’s fellow white police officers are proponents of Afrikaner nationalism, yet McClure refrained from stereotyping his characters. He also allowed his African characters the same extended range of responses to conditions under apartheid. Zondi, in The Gooseberry Fool (1974), is nearly killed by a rioting crowd of people evicted from their homes by the Security Forces—the crowd believes that all police officers, whatever the branch, are racist murderers. Lenny Francis, in The Steam Pig, arranges his own sister’s murder, in part because of his envy of her ability to pass as white. Mario Da Gama and Ruru, in Snake (1975), use apartheid’s blindness to shape a white-black alliance in crime, certain that such a partnership is beyond suspicion. Because the viewpoints and values expressed by McClure’s characters embody such a range of sensibilities,...

(The entire section is 1458 words.)