African Mystery Fiction Analysis

Native African Writers

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The mystery and detective fiction genre is yet relatively unexplored by black African writers. African authors who write about crime in their continent tend to focus on themes that deplore colonialism and its aftermath—the loss of traditional ways, civil wars, political corruption, exploitation, genocide, and retribution. They often depict clashes between traditional systems of justice and colonial systems of justice imposed on them and find subject matter in the abrupt shifts from one system to the other that almost always had disastrous consequences.

In 1958, the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, who would become one of the continent’s leading authors, published a novel that has become a modern classic: Things Fall Apart. Its story builds to a climax which sets tribal justice so sharply at odds with British colonial justice that each side sees the other as barbaric outsiders. The story concerns four crimes. The first is an accidental gun firing during a celebration that sends the main character, Okonkwo, into exile from his home under tribal law. The second is the colonial administrators’ execution of an entire village’s residents as punishment for the killing of a British soldier. The third is Okonkwo’s slaying of a British representative who challenges his village’s right to follow its own rules. The fourth, and ultimate crime, is the British colonial system’s destruction of a society’s way of life. as Okonkwo, the very best of citizens, is forced to kill himself to save his village from destruction. Okonkwo strikes out at the British invaders because it is his duty as community protector. However, British retribution threatens to destroy the village he is duty bound to defend. He thus takes his own life, a crime against himself and a forbidden act in...

(The entire section is 731 words.)

White Southern Africans

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Southern African writers of European descent have often chosen the crime or mystery form. Mysteries written by such authors as James McClure, Nadine Gordimer, Deon Meyer, and Gillian Slovo typically assert the rightness of opposing an unjust system that has purposefully and methodically sought to destroy tribal ways and undercut the worth of whole races. However, white South Africans are also known occasionally to add touches of humor to a genre not generally known for levity. For example, Herman Charles Bosman’s short stories “Unto Dust” (1949), about a murder during frontier wars, and “Willemsdorp” (1977) both consciously mimic Edgar Allan Poe’s detective and mix crime and humor.

South Africa’s best-known mystery writer is almost certainly James McClure, the creator of the unlikely teaming of an Afrikaner, Tromp Kramer, and a Zulu, Mickey Zondi, as detectives during the apartheid era. Despite rules forbidding black and white police officers from fraternizing, these two characters share a sense of humor that makes the seemingly unendurable social system in which they operate bearable. As detectives they cross racial bridges impassable by others, overcoming legal restrictions that separate native Africans from not only white people but also Asians and the so-called Coloureds—people of mixed heritage.

McClure’s novel The Steam Pig (1971) effectively captures the nightmare of apartheid: police torture, African gangs, white families reclassified as black, pass laws, daughters trying to pass for white, sons turning to crime and murder, public officials violating the racial sex act laws and using murder to cover up their “schoolboy” pranks. The Caterpillar Cop (1972) features a youthful character who belongs to a detective club, whose members stand on guard, much like members of the Hitler Youth, against supposed violations of race laws. The Gooseberry Fool (1974) describes the horrors of “black spot” evictions and forced transportation to desolate African homelands. The Sunday Hangman (1977) details the techniques of state executions, and The Blood of an Englishman (1980) has Zondi play dead to catch a killer, while pseudoscientists try to find a biological factor that will enable them to identify race by blood.

Gillian Slovo, the daughter of South African...

(The entire section is 968 words.)

Expatriate and Immigrant Writers

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

European immigrants to Africa tend to see crime in terms of political and social issues, though they often follow European crime and mystery conventions, in a tradition that goes back to the turn of the twentieth century. For example, journalist Douglas Blackburn, writing anonymously in Kruger’s Secret Service (London, 1900), examines issues that drove the South Africa War.

British writer Elspeth Huxley, who grew up in colonial Kenya, is best known for her evocative memoirs, especially The Flame Trees of Thika (1959), but she also wrote several murder mysteries: Murder at Government House (1937), Murder on Safari (1938), Death of an Aryan (1939; also known as The African Poison Murders, 1940), The Merry Hippo (1963; also known as Incident at the Merry Hippo, 1964), and A Man from Nowhere (1964). These books mix comedy and satire with crime, taking on big-game hunters and politics by vested interests, Most important, however, they explore interactions between Europeans and Africans, depicting each group as equally puzzled by the other’s idiosyncracies. Huxley captures distinct differences in point of view, methods of investigation and detection, degrees of criminal violence, and interpretations of human behavior, Another of her novels, The Red Rock Wilderness (1957), depicts a mad biologist who runs amuck in French Equatorial Africa.

Another well-known British author who grew up in colonial Africa is Doris Lessing, whose The Grass Is Singing (1950), views the Southern Rhodesian society of her youth as polarized by race. Henning Mankell, a Swedish writer who divides his time between Sweden and Mozambique, is best known for his novels about Detective Inspector Kurt Wallander. In Den vita lejoninnan (1993; The White Lioness, 1998), Wallander foils a plot by former South African secret police members to assassinate Nelson Mandela.

Lauri Kubuitsile is an American freelance journalist who went to Botswana in 1989 as a Peace Corps volunteer, stayed, and married a Botswana teacher and former Olympic boxer, Shakes Kubuitsile. Her novels The Fatal Payout (2005) and Murder for Profit (2006) exploit the growing popularity of stories set in Africa.

Non-Africans on Africa

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Non-African writers who have exploited African settings for their sensational and exotic values have generally relied on the story strategies of mainstream British or American mystery writers. Examples include P. N. Walker-Taylor’s Murder in the Game Reserve (1938), and Donald Swanson’s own 1950 novel of the same title. In Lawrence Sanders’s The Tangent Objective (1976) and The Tangent Factor (1978), American oil company troubleshooter and amateur detective Peter Tangent tries to exploit the political chaos convulsing West Africa but is somewhat transformed by his contact with local people. The story line of Michael Gruber’s thriller Tropic of Night (2003) moves among the United States, Mali, and Nigeria, mixing Yoruba sorcerers with Siberian shamans and French scholars, anthropology, and mayhem.

Robert Wilson, a British crime novelist who lives in Portugal, has set four of his stories in West Africa. His protagonist in this series, middle-aged hard-boiled detective Bruce Medway, deals violently with political corruption and disdain for human rights. In The Big Killing (1996), Medway minds a young British diamond merchant. In Instruments of Darkness (1996), set along the coast, he acts as a fixer for traders, one of whom is seeking a missing mystery man who may be a murderer. Medway tracks down missing money connected to the American mob and a power-hungry Nigerian presidential candidate in...

(The entire section is 555 words.)

Ancient Egypt as a Setting

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Many mystery stories written by non-Africans focus on ancient Egypt, a setting that allows them to avoid harsh contemporary realities and political issues and instead to provide history lessons sprinkled with archaeological details. Lynda Robinson is a good example. A native Texan who studied archaeology and did fieldwork in the Middle East, she sets such novels as Murder in the Place of Anubis (1994), Murder at the God’s Gate (1995), Murder at the Feast of Rejoicing (1996), Eater of Souls (1998), and Slayer of Gods (2003) in the fourteenth century b.c.e. Her detective is Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s chief investigator, Lord Meren. Meren unravel murders and mysteries that plague the boy king, including the early and unexpected death of Nefertiti.

P. C. Doherty, an English writer with a doctorate in history, also writes about ancient Egyptian detectives. He deftly interweaves genuine historical events with investigations of looting, professional assassinations, and other murderous acts in novels such as The Mask of Ra (2001), The Anubis Slayings (2001), The Horus Killings (2002), The Slayers of Seth (2002), An Evil Spirit Out of the West (2004), The Season of the Hyaena (2005), The Year of the Cobra (2006), and The Assassins of Isis (2006). All these books are set at critical moments in the lives of various pharaohs.

Another English novelist, Elizabeth Peters, takes a different approach to Egyptian history. Her lengthy Victorian series follows the adventures of married archaeologists Amilia Peabody Emerson and Radcliffe Emerson and their son, Ramses, all of whom seek undiscovered Egyptian tombs and murderers. Peters combines comedy and romance with investigations centered on nineteenth century archaeological digs amid desert sands. The feminist projections of Peters’s Crocodile on the Sandbank (1975), The Curse of the Pharaohs (1981), and The Mummy Case (1985) have continued from volume to volume, with Serpent on the Crown (2005) and Tomb of the Golden Bird (2006) continuing the family history and replaying familiar patterns.

The success of these authors’ series has inspired imitators, such as Anton Gill, author of City of Dreams (1994), a thriller set in ancient Egypt. Another is Brad Geagley, author of Year of the Hyenas (2005), which uses the down-and-out investigator Semerket, a former clerk of investigations and secrets in Egypt, during the twelfth century b.c.e. Jane Jakeman’s The Egyptian Coffin (2006) is another archaeology mystery, set during the 1830’s.


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Christian, Ed, ed. The Post-Colonial Detective. New York: Palgrave, 2000. Postulating that postcolonial detection is a hybrid of Western-influenced police methods and genre convention, exotic settings, and indigenous perspectives, this volume of essays includes one on James McClure’s use of the Zulu detective Zondi to take on South Africa’s apartheid system.

Friedland, Susan. South African Detective Stories in English and Afrikaans from 1951-1971: A Bibliography. Johannesburg: University of Witwatersrand, Department of Bibliography, Librarianship and Typography, 1972. Thorough reference list of South African mystery fiction published during the first two full decades of the apartheid system.

Higginson, Pim. “Mayhem at the Crossroads: Francophone African Fiction and the Rise of the Crime Novel.” Yale French Studies 108 (2005): 160-176. The title reveals the content: an examination of the violence and chaos captured in African crime stories written in French. Republished in Crime Fictions, edited by Susanna Lee and Andrea Goulet (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2006).

Matzke, Christine, and Susanne Mühleisen, eds. Crime Fiction from a Transcultural Perspective. New York: Internationale Forschungen zur Allgemeinen und Vergleichenden Literaturwissenschaft, 2006. This collection of original articles includes essays on Botswana and Ethiopian detective novels, examining questions of authority, power and subversion in depictions of crime and its detection.

Schleh, Eugene, ed. Mysteries of Africa. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1991. This collection takes a serious look at major crime story authors such as James McClure, explores popular African crimes, and includes interviews with authors.