Monday, April 13, 2015

Vintage Mystery #6

I read this book for the Vintage Mystery Bingo Reading Challenge 2015. The challenge is to read 6 or more Vintage Mysteries. All novels must have been originally written between 1960 and 1989 inclusive and be from the mystery category.

I read this for the category “I-3: Animal in the title”

The Steam Pig – James McClure

Set in South Africa during the apartheid era, an Afrikaner detective and his Bantu assistant investigate the murder of a music teacher who was done in with a sharpened bicycle spoke. The unexpected combination of an Afrikaner victim and a Bantu weapon proves confusing and volatile for everybody involved. Readers like me will find this novel, as the English say, strong meat – arousing dismay, anger and repulsion, but attractive because of lively style, gripping story, and plausible characters.

As to apartheid, a system of brutally enforced racial segregation, McClure’s description sounds ‘take or leave it’. He assumes that rigid laws that separate races will have negative economic, social, and moral consequences on every member of society. All the interactions among the characters proceed from their shared assumption that their racial classification is the most important factor in their lives. Kramer and Zondi, the two detective heroes, talk to everybody and each other based on their position in the hierarchy.

Nobody kids themselves about their own thoughts and feelings about themselves being more important than whether they are classified black, white, coloured, or Indian.  Anybody old enough to see red when remembering Reagan’s vetoing of Congress’ economic sanctions against South Africa generally knows how cruel that system was. But to me, the specific story of the family, for example, who are re-classified from white to colored was illuminating in terms of the systematic cruelty of segregation. Obviously such a system could only be enforced by an authoritarian and bureaucratic government. And puritanical: they banned Playboy magazine. And feeling embattled: SA had no TV until 1976 because they thought English-language programming would cause Afrikaans to die off.

McClure’s ‘take or leave it’ tone probably contributed to the success of the Kramer-Zondi series in South Africa. This first novel does have its problems. We readers long for a little backstory on Kramer and Zondi. The Kramer character is well developed, but Zondi is not. Kramer is an independent-minded realist and cynic, but has the cop mentality that the law is the law and no situation has any gray areas. Kramer has impetuous ways and overlooks key pieces of evidence. He’s a male chauvinist who condescends to women even while he uses their intelligence for his own ends. Kramer’s way of talking to Zondi, especially when other whites are around, reflects their different places in the social order. The criminal enterprise was clever, the violence horrific, and fascinating were the glimpses at Bantu gangsters, Indian shopkeepers, Muslims and colored families.

Fans who like Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano or Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen will probably like this novel, as will people who remember Marshall’s Yellowthread Street novels. As I said above, it’s surely not for people who don’t like ugly but for readers that can tolerate sometimes repellent content with vivid, sometimes funny writing. I happened to read this one after I read a modern cozy (Old Bones byAaron Elkins). It was just the ticket to get over the blah.

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