I've been reading my way around a burst of new crime writing in South Africa, trying to get a bead on the movement (if a movement, how a movement, why this genre, etc.)? So I thought I'd stretch out, see what ancestry exists... and, as Deon Meyer pointed out in an essay (re)posted at http://720plan.ovh.net/~villagil/article.php3?id_article=279, crime fiction of any stripe hadn't blossomed much. But the last fifteen years the genre(s) blew up (see http://crimebeat.book.co.za/2008/02/05/setting-up-a-hit-list-of-sa-crime-writers/), and there are probably any number of good reasons. (I say hopefully, trying to think through some of them myself.)
James McClure is probably the first, and for a long stretch the only, writer in English tackling crime in a post-puzzle, procedural/sociological fashion. And I'd heard all this stuff about how effective his works were at delineating a rich sense of South African society, its (as one reviewer puts it) "racial and sexual tensions."
Well... judging from this novel, no.
McClure is tediously flat as a crime writer. "Banter" from every character, all the time; an annoyingly conventional stretch of exposition, bad guy laying out his or her motives, actions, to close the book; a reliance on easy stereotypes and a too-neat, too-easy resolution of social order at novel's end.
That last flaw is exacerbated by a sense of what was actually happening in South Africa in 1980, when the novel was written and set. The novel studiously sidesteps political disturbances or unrest, depicts a black underclass fairly content to shuffle along for the "bosses" and shake their heads at white eccentricity. It's patronizing in the worst liberal sense, seeing some kind of acceptance and order in the social system--reminiscent of those novels of the late nineteenth century in America, nostalgically reminiscing about the generally positive interrelationships of masters and slaves on the good old plantation. And aside from the occasional mention of Zulus or "coloured," a profligate use of the term "kaffir," and a keen eye--the book's one strong suit--for the class tensions between Afrikaaner and English citizens, it could have been set anywhere .... One of those "exotic" mysteries, for the armchair traveler, with the illusory whiff of otherness perfuming a pretty damn standard bit of fare. Bleah.