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Books Column: African writers to take with you to the beach this Dezemba

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Ben Williams is the publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.

Attention crime fiction lovers: Ben Williams has a few tips on which books from the continent to pack with your slip-slops and towel.

Like everyone, I’m a secret crime reader. Okay, not so secret. I flaunt my affection for a good krimi, as the Germans call the genre, as shamelessly as the average Nobel Prize-winning author next door. Which happened to be TS Eliot, if you lived at 5 Kensington Court Gardens, London, around the halfway point of the last century. He was a rabid devourer of crime fiction, as was his fellow literary major-leaguer Vladimir Nabokov (who was sadly snubbed by the Swedish Academy), along with many another highbrow scribe.

Eliot chalked crime fiction’s appeal up to humanity’s craving for what he called “melodrama” — and while the term may sound old-fashioned, there’s something to it: no matter how charming or sympathetic the villain is in a crime novel, after all, he’s still a villain. And no matter how flawed or hopeless the cop or private detective are, they’re still the heroes. Our minds are reassured by stories that play out alongside characters with set roles. It’s a good bet the crime novel will be the last mass literary form standing, once the screens have finally devoured every other erstwhile medium of attention-span holding.

In South Africa, we like to take our melodrama to the beach: toss some crime or chick lit into the beach bag with the slip-slops and off we go, primed for adventure while lying supine in the sun. It’s a splendid holiday tradition, but also one that tends to omit the superb crime novels scampering around our own rather extensive back yard, by which I mean the entire African continent.

In the spirit of conviviality that marks this most merry of months, here are a few ways to rectify this oversight: three krimis from Africa that you should make haste in tossing on to your beach towel.

  • When Trouble Sleeps by Leye Adenle. The follow-up to his superb debut, Easy Motion Tourist, which sees Amaka Mbadiwe return as a guardian angel to Lagos sex workers. Where Easy Motion was more police procedural, Trouble Sleeps is more thriller, but the “I am entirely engrossed by this portrayal of Lagos’ sheer crazed mosaic” factor is the same. A quick cut to the action: “A shirtless torso slammed onto the window on the passenger side, jolting her. The man pushed himself off the car, leaving an imprint of his chest in sweat. He banged on the roof and continued running up the road with the rest, waving a plank above his head.” Irresistible.
  • The Score by HJ Golakai. The second in Golakai’s Vee Johnson Mysteries series, which kicks off with a hanging in Oudtshoorn, of all places. Here’s a sample: “Her hand met nothing but air until it brushed against the dead man’s leg. The body, strung by the neck to the coat hook, took up a gentle, pendulous swing, the fabric of the man’s jeans and leather of his shoes making a low, eerie rasp against the grainy concrete wall.” You’re already hooked, right?
  • Dark Water by Parker Bilal, which is the pseudonym that author Jamal Majoub uses when writing crime fiction. Bilal’s detective, known by a single name, Makana, takes on low-rent cases in Cairo. Like this one: “Makana looked round to see a man standing at the top of the stairs: tall, thin and with the tanned complexion of a European who had spent long seasons in sunny climes. ” So tantalizing — more, please!

These books are the proverbial tip of the fountain pen when it comes to African crime writing. Start with any of them and you’ll soon find yourself guilty of criminal neglect of your real-world responsibilities. As it should be at this time of year. Haste ye, African krimi in hand, to the beach!

Postscript: In my previous column, I expressed doubts about the commercial fitness of Jeremy Daniel’s book on Springbok hero Siya Kolisi, Siya Kolisi: Against All Odds, given that it had been published some time before the Boks’ World Cup triumph. It turns out that rugby book mania can embrace books of  the past as much as those of the present: the title has since risen to the status of a major best seller. (Watch out for the Daily Maverick’s new official Top Ten, on which it will feature, this Sunday.)  This is not to dismiss Kolisi’s unhappiness with the book — it’s unauthorised; he has spoken out against it — merely to observe that a canny bit of publishing is seeing results. My pick for rugby book triumph this festive season, meanwhile – Beast by Tendai Mtawarira – while doing well, isn’t the Top Ten-crashing smash hit I thought it would be. Bookselling: as hard to predict as the sport itself. ML

Ben Williams is the publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.

 

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