Africa’s Crime Writers Are Coming to the Fore, Inspired by Violence

We sure have come a long way since Out of Africa and The Flame Trees of Thika.

In the second decade of the 21st century, some of the most compelling contemporary crime-fiction novels are either set in or coming from Africa. Much as Scandinavia became associated with the genre a few years back — thanks in large part to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy — Africa may become a new capital of literary crime.

Cape Town’s Roger Smith, who writes with the brutal beauty of an Elmore Leonard in a very bad mood, is at the forefront. His 2009 debut, Mixed Blood, has been optioned for a film starring Samuel L. Jackson and directed by Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger). His second book, Wake Up Dead, is also going Hollywood, with director Mark Tonderai (Hush) attached.

Meanwhile, his third novel, Dust Devils, has just been released as an e-book in the U.S. All of this activity follows on the heels of releases in the past year or so from Ghanaian-born/U.S.-based Kwei Quartey (Children of the Street), Nigeria’s Adimchinma Ibe (Treachery in the Yard), and South Africa’s Mike Nicol and Joanne Hichens, who write under the name Sam Cole (Cape Greed).

Coming in September are new works from Deon Meyer (Trackers) and fellow South Africans Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, who write under the name Michael Stanley (Death of the Mantis: A Detective Kubu Mystery), and Kenyan-raised/U.S.-based Mukoma Wa Ngugi (Nairobi Heat). Just as the works of James Ellroy and Carl Hiaasen dig beneath the glitter and glamour of Hollywood and South Beach, respectively, to reveal a nasty, fetid underside, these books rip away images of the Sahara and safaris and go beyond nightly news pictures of deprivation and desperation.

While many Americans may have been introduced to the idea of African-set crime fiction through Alexander McCall Smith’s polite The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency books and the subsequent HBO series, some of this new wave is often far less soft-centered and more hard-boiled, less nice and more noir.

We spoke recently with Smith and Ngugi about their lives, work and what it means to plug into an Anglo-American genre and rewire it into an African context.

Screenwriter and director Roger Smith, 51, came of age in Johannesburg as a fan of American noir writers like Jim Thompson. But he was wary of trying his hand at it.

“I grew up in South Africa during the apartheid era, and, if you wanted to talk about crime, you had to talk about the biggest crime there was — apartheid,” he says by phone from Thailand, where he spends part of the year. “To write crime fiction, in the classic sense, about guys shooting each other over money, would have been inappropriate.”

But after apartheid officially was lifted in 1994, Smith, who’s white, began to think that the time might be right, and about five years ago he sat down to pen Mixed Blood. He certainly had enough inspiration from his surroundings; crime often dominates the headlines in Johannesburg and Cape Town, where Smith now lives. He writes of a world of residual racism and vicious gangland violence, the latter often fueled by tik, the South African version of meth.

It’s a hellish vision that has earned him criticism from some South Africans who feel he gives the place a bad name. “Sadly, South Africa creates a negative impression of itself,” he says. “Statistics don’t lie, and the crime statistics for South Africa are really shocking, especially when it comes to violent crime. … A South African woman is more likely to be raped than learn to read. It’s important to discuss that. … What I try to do with all my books is to give those statistics a face, to force the reader into the world of someone who ends up being one of those statistics. That’s the role that crime fiction plays. It is entertainment, sure, but it can create debate about those things.”

For Smith, the discussion is not just academic. His wife, who’s Coloured (mixed-race), grew up in the hard-scrabble Cape Flats, the sprawling, dusty, impoverished area located far from iconic Table Mountain and the ritzy neighborhoods that hug the ocean.

“My knowledge of the Flats is informed by a lot of the years that we’ve been together,” he says. “It was a culture that I steeped myself in. There were incredible stories that weren’t being told. That division between beauty and privilege and unbelievable hardship and deprivation made for good drama and good stories.”

While some whites have castigated Smith for his point of view, he says Coloureds and blacks are more understanding. “The response from the Flats has been really good,” he says. “People have never read anything that captures the atmosphere of the place quite the way my books have.”

But that atmosphere may be too bleak for American publishers. While his first two books were published by Henry Holt, the terrific Dust Devils — about a Cape Town man, with a dad from Texas, who’s turned into an avenging angel after his family is slaughtered — is only available as an e-book so far. (It has been traditionally published in Europe and South Africa). “Traditional publishing is very nervous.-….. They’re looking for books that are safe and commercial,” Smith says. “I suppose a book like Dust Devils doesn’t fall into that category.”

As for whether Africa will be a major source of crime fiction, Smith says he can certainly see South Africa providing a lot more. “America’s looking for parallels to what’s been going on in Scandinavia and Ireland,” he says. “I don’t know if there’s a South African crime identity, but there’s a hell of a lot more people writing crime fiction than five years ago. The fact that people are living in a country dominated by crime has to have an impact on what you write.”

For Mukoma Wa Ngugi, who was born in the U.S. and lives here now but was raised in Kenya, crime fiction was one of the few options available during the Daniel arap Moi regime of the ’80s.

“During the Moi dictatorship, a lot of literary writers went into exile,” says Ngugi, 40, in a phone interview from his Connecticut home. “Most of my generation, we read Shakespeare and African classics, but it was popular fiction that took the place of literary fiction.”

Now, with Nairobi Heat, which was published by Penguin in South Africa in 2009 and is being published in the U.S. by Melville House in September, Ngugi gets to join the ranks of crime writers he has long admired. In the book, he tells the story of Ishmael, an African-American detective who has to go to Kenya to investigate a case.

“I’ve always wanted to pay homage to that genre, and what those writers could do was sneak politics in,” says Ngugi, the son of Kenyan novelist/critic Ngugi wa Thiong’o, a political columnist for BBC’s Focus on Africa magazine and, until recently, a part-time lecturer and fellow in the English department at Ohio’s Case Western Reserve University. “I was able to deal with issues, as the detective is African-American so there are issues of race, and then (when he goes to Kenya), there are issues of identity of poverty.

“Like with Walter Mosley and Devil in a Blue Dress, he was able to seamlessly bring in African-American issues and issues of race and class.”

Ngugi, who’s working on a Nairobi Heat sequel, is aware that there appears to be a wider market for African fiction, including crime fiction, these days. “African fiction is very popular, generally speaking,” he says. “For the younger generation of writers, there are more avenues.”

He notes that in Kenya, to which he travels yearly, writers are much freer than when he was coming up. But, he says, African fiction is hamstrung by lingering stereotypes.

“I don’t know if there’s a ready market for hard-core, violent and hard-hitting African fiction,” he says. “Ultimately, there’s this idea that African literature has to be functional and deal with issues of colonialism. But we have to allow it to be many things — science fiction, detective fiction. We have to allow it to flourish and go in any direction.”

Roger Smith

An African crime fiction starter kit

Here are a few suggested titles if you want to explore the world of African crime fiction.

Blood Safari, by Deon Meyer — South African Meyer writes in Afrikaans and his work is translated into English, but it doesn’t seem to lose much of its punch.

Cape Greed, by Sam Cole — Like Roger Smith, the writing team of Mike Nicol and Joanne Hichens (aka Sam Cole) explore the Cape Town far from where tourists go.

Children of the Street, by Kwei Quartey — Ghanaian-born/U.S.-based Quartey has created an intriguing protagonist with detective Darko Dawson, through whom he takes readers into the crowded streets of Accra.

Mixed Blood, by Roger Smith — This debut novel by South African Smith is a real page-turner with some vivid characters, especially in swaggeringly violent corrupt cop Rudi Barnard.

Nairobi Heat, by Mukoma Wa Ngugi — Kenyan Ngugi straddles two worlds with an African-American investigator who has to go to Kenya to work on a case.

Treachery in the Yard, by Adimchinma Ibe — Steamy, teeming, politically corrupt Nigeria is an appropriate setting for crime fiction, as Ibe shows in this slim but intriguing first novel.

Cary Darling – McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)