where the writers are
Six South African Krimis reviewed by Moira Richards

Deon Meyer’s crime novels, now translated into more than two dozen languages, may arguably be doing as much as last year’s FIFA World Cup did to get South Africa onto the world map. This year, Sifiso Mzobe aced the Sunday Times Literary Award with his carjacking and drugs story, Young Blood. Add to that, the runaway success of Mandy Weiner’s Killing Kebble and surely nothing more is needed  to prove that crime writing is alive and well in South Africa – and not only on the front pages of this newspaper!

Afrikaans authors seem particularly prolific and Chanette Paul, seasoned romance writer, successfully marries that genre with crime to create her mystery romance series of novels. Detective Gys Niemand and his side-kick, Faantjie Fortuin form the unifying thread through the stories set in and around a remote South African sea-side village and they appear again, in Paul’s newest book, Dryfhout.

The female lead is a beautiful not-so-young single mother of a teenager who, conveniently, is away gap-yearing in France. There’s a forty-something hunk destined, obviously, for the heart and bed of spunky Aengel Rousseau but it will take 500 pages, five broken hearts and five very dead corpses before the pair’s minds catch up with what their bodies decided at their first electric meeting. Stir into the mix, a long-ago diary, the unraveling of a 200-year old mystery, and more closet-escaping skeletons than I could count, and Paul creates a satisfying tale for readers who know exactly what they want from the genre.

She peoples her novel with an engaging cast of secondary characters and the action, which spans just one week, is fast, compelling and, often, very sexy indeed. Fans will have looked forward to this fifth Gys Niemand book with mixed feelings, knowing that it is also the last in the series.

Jassy Mackenzie’s Worst Case is also latest (the third) in a crimes series. Her sharp-shooting private investigator, Jade de Jonge, is back with, again, more success at confounding criminals than with managing her affair with the married David Patel. Happily, de Jonge is a kick-ass thirty-something woman who has no need of men to take care of her.  

Thorough research confers a strong sense of authenticity to Mackenzie’s work. She sets her stories in familiar South African spaces and incorporates contemporary social issues as background to the books. This time Jade finds herself in Richards Bay where dune mining, environmental protection and the needs of local communities are important to the region as well as integral to the story-line of the novel.

Worst Case is cleverly plotted and includes startling accounts of how easily justice can be (and, I suppose, often is) subverted. Mackenzie allows her protagonist to share her thoughts with the reader as she puzzles out possible motives, interprets people’s reactions, and explains the reasons for her own actions – all of which make for a pleasingly ‘intelligent’ approach to the crime genre.

The Lazarus Effect is a first novel and, wow, what a debut! Voinjama (Vee) Johnson is, like her creator, a Liberian national living in Cape Town. The book, set in the city’s southern suburbs, is filled with a multi-cultural cast of sassy women which allows the author to take some very funny potshots at racial stereotyping. You may have noticed that the protagonist shares a last name with the current president of Liberia; Africa’s first and only woman to be elected head of state? A wicked explanation is given by way of answer to a curious co-character in the novel.

The whodunnit has an intricate plot which Hawa Golakai unwinds, carefully, through a slew of red herrings and some Toni Morrison-like bits of the supernatural. A dead teenager in an underground drainpipe needs for her body to be found, and Vee Johnson is an investigative reporter on a local paper. There are too, hints of unconventional and topical don’t-ask-don’t-tell methods of obtaining information by Vee’s also rather unconventional assistant, Chlöe Bishop.

Golakai has a great ear for dialogue, and spices her tale with some wonderfully evocative patois. The Liberian back story alone is interesting enough to warrant more Vee Johnson books but the author really teases her readers with Vee’s love life. As Janet Evanovich has her Stephanie Plum torn constantly between Joe Morelli and Ranger, so does Hawa Golakai set her Vee up as unable to decide which of the two gorgeous men, Joshua Allen and Titus Wreh, to commit to – just yet.

Pieter Aspe is a Flemish author and Die Midasmoorde is the second of his very successful Pieter van In series that Daniel Hugo has translated into Afrikaans. If he and LAPA plan to bring the entire series to Afrikaans readers they’ll certainly have their work cut out for them since it already comprises 29 books and Aspe seems comfortable with adding as many as two new titles a year.

His back story is strong, as it must be to sustain a couple dozen novels in series, but what really grabs here is the sense of place. The city of Bruges is alive in the novel and the aftermaths in Europe of World War II still rankle, even 50 years later, and underpin the crimes written into Die Midasmoorde. Again, the protagonist is a police detective, and an observant and astute detective too, yet the story conveys a strong undercurrent of disillusionment with the effectiveness of the formal Belgian legal and justice systems.

A particular delight is the understated wit and wordplay by the narrator as well as from the dour, chain-smoking Belgian police commissioner and his more temperate gay sergeant, Guido Versavel. Here, van In happens to find himself at the mercy of an uncompromising bank manager, and

“Die rooi kleur van sy wange weerspieël die kommissaris se finansiële posisie perfek.”

Like Pieter van In, Diale Tlholwe’s Thabang Maje often drinks too much and is rather more susceptible to beautiful women than is good for his personal life, but there the similarities end. Thabang, rookie private investigator, is macho, wise-cracking, and on occasion, waxes philosophical. He’s in partnership with an ex-policeman who left the South African force because he became disillusioned with its workings. But he still maintains contact with some of his erstwhile colleagues for when mutual favours are needed. A third partner has rather more assets than can be explained by their fledgling business which operates from offices in the Bedlam Building in Johannesburg’s Pritchard Street.

Counting the Coffins, second in the Thabang Maje series, is gritty and moves fast. The protagonists rely on a combination of audacious bluff and good luck to demolish the bad guys and, often, are as far outside the law as they sometimes tries to be on its right side.

English is not Tlholwe’s home language, and his usage is interesting in the way it manages to convey some slant sense of how idiomatic Setswana might sound. Makes me wonder if it’s not viable for popular novels to be printed in two different languages on opposite pages – to both facilitate the learning of a new language as well as to make more books available in our African languages.

Leon van Nierop, another prolific Afrikaans writer, sets his newest novel on a remote farm in Namibia. His writing style is particularly ‘audiovisual’ and his subject matter often graphically gruesome. The very first pages of Verklikker suggest, with chilling prescience, ghostly hauntings, flowings of blood and ghastly deaths.

The book’s protagonist must negotiate murder while simultaneously trying to make sense of the conservative moral codes presented to him; he has to deal with being victimised and misunderstood as well as with first love and the loss of his virginity; he has to find a way to fit himself into the world despite a marked lack of exemplary role models. Marco Lange is just 16 years old, a budding alpha male, and this horror crime novel, with its dramatically evil adult figures, has lots to appeal to teen readers. And, I’d like to think, for them to think about too.


Dryfhout deur Chanette Paul                                                             Uitgewer: LAPA

Prys: R 190.00                                                                                    Resensent: Moira Richards


Worst Case deur Jassy Mackenzie                                                      Uitgewer: Umuzi

Prys: R 170.00                                                                                    Resensent: Moira Richards


The Lazarus Effect deur HJ Golakai                                                  Uitgewer: Kwela

Prys: R 195.00                                                                                    Resensent: Moira Richards


Die Midasmoorde deur geskryf deur Pieter Aspe

vertaal in Afrikaans deur Daniel Hugo                                              Uitgewer: LAPA                    

Prys: R170.00                                                                                     Resensent: Moira Richards


Counting the Coffins deur Diale Tlholwe                                           Uitgewer: Kwela

Prys: R 175.00                                                                                    Resensent: Moira Richards


Verklikker deur Leon van Nierop                                                       Uitgewer: LAPA

Prys: R 170.00                                                                                    Resensent: Moira Richards


review first published in Afrikaans by Rapport: