(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The very title of Gillian Slovo’s first novel, Morbid Symptoms, indicates the special nature of her Kate Baeier detective series. As Kate explains, the phrase is a quotation from Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist philosopher, and refers to the minor problems at the end of an era, in this case the capitalist era. Kate is a socialist detective, opposed to capitalism, the rich, the police, and the apartheid leaders of South Africa. She is also a feminist and thus at odds with most of the men she encounters, especially white men and police officers. Kate’s feminism is shared by female detectives in other series of the 1980’s, notably those by Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky, but her radical socialism sets her apart.

In the first four books of the series Kate encounters agents of the apartheid South African government; a landlord who violates the fire codes, causing death and injury; oppressed black Londoners who start to organize to overcome their oppression; victims of a fraudulent pension scheme benefiting businessmen and investors; and a host of brutal police officers. On the surface Kate and her author seem left wing and liberated, clearly on the side of the oppressed and against the forces of capitalism. However, as Sally Munt notes in her study of feminism and the crime novel, the Kate Baeier novels pull in conflicting directions and may not be as liberated as they seem. Munt points especially to the position of Kate’s black assistant, Carmen, who is very competent and industrious and is portrayed in a positive light but remains, by her own choice, in a subordinate position.

In addition, some of the left-wing politics seems merely tacked on, as when in Death by Analysis (1986) Kate approvingly takes note of Irish hunger strikers who have no real role in the plot. Indeed, many of the plots focus on personal rather than political issues, and in Death by Analysis the whole issue of the relationship between the personal and the political is uneasily discussed by various characters and is exemplified by the fact that Kate has been in therapy and is not entirely happy that the result of the therapy was to turn her away from changing the world in order to focus on her psyche. A major theme of this novel is the passing of the revolutionary moment. Characters talk nostalgically of the radical 1960’s but keep reminding themselves that it is now the 1980’s and revolution is out of style. In Morbid Symptoms, those who have remained on the radical left are portrayed for the most part as preoccupied with petty infighting among themselves, and in the end the true villain turns out to be not the so-called real enemy, the South African security forces, but a member of one of the left-wing groups.

Although the overt thrust of the novels is to attack authority and privilege and to side with the oppressed and with radical political groups, there is an undercurrent flowing in the opposite direction, so much so that in Catnap (1994), Carmen accuses Kate of having switched sides. Even as early as in Death by Analysis, Kate feels she is stuck on the black-white divide, not truly able to side with the black victims with whom she sympathizes. She also begins to develop self-doubts. In Death Comes Staccato (1987), she twice calls herself a failure as an investigator, and at the end she fingers the wrong suspect for the crime. In Catnap she feels incompetent, blames herself for a break-in, and even gets lost in a library.

Kate has lost her boyfriend, Sam, in Catnap. Sam was one of the few good men in the novels, gentle and supportive, just the sort of man a feminist might love, but as early as the opening pages of Morbid Symptoms Kate seems vaguely dissatisfied with him. In Death by Analysis she is leaping out of his arms, and in Death Comes Staccato she flirts with someone else and almost lets herself be seduced. Morag Shiach, in her article on female detectives, notes that they often have boyfriends who turn out to be too safe and weak, and she singles out Sam as an example of...

(The entire section is 1681 words.)