BEING A READER, Crime books

James McClure’s ‘The Steam Pig’ – a great crime novel that grates

James McClure’s first crime novel featuring Lieutenant Tromp Kramer and Constable Mickey Zondi, The Steam Pig, appears on a couple of Top Ten lists for police procedurals. The setting, like that of my first crime story, is South Africa. So I was very keen to read the book. Doing so, however, wasn’t the unmitigated pleasure I had hoped for. The reasons are complex.

It is clear from the first line that McClure is a witty writer: For an undertaker George Henry Abbott was a sad man.

If that’s not a great first line, I don’t what is. The Steam Pig has a great many equally delightful sentences and some wonderful twists, though partly offsetby a few plodding passages. And how often does it happen that the title of the book itself delivers a kick to the gut, once the reader catches its meaning?

The plot is an impressive achievement, becoming even more so in retrospect. It runs rings around the vast majority of crime novels and, impressively, does so without losing credibility. The motivations and chain of events are both amazing and utterly believable.

The characters are great, and not only Kramer and Zondi. Many of the minor characters are vividly imagined and drawn with unexpected insight.

Given all these positives, why do I have such misgivings?

There are a few superficial irritations, for instance the repeated misspelling of Afrikaans character and street names. One character, clearly meant to be Jannie Koekemoer, has both his name and surname spelled wrong – Janie Koekemoor. Though this kind of thing is unnecessarily sloppy, international readers wouldn’t know and perhaps even the readers who do notice wouldn’t care the way I do.

More of an issue is the rampant racism of the characters. I found this hard to take, but perhaps I am oversensitive to this because of my personal history, having lived in South Africa for most of my life.

The book is set in the late 1960s, with apartheid showing no signs of cracking. In fact, this is reportedly one of the reasons James McClure decided to leave South Africa in the mid-Sixties – he was drawing unwelcome attention from the state security apparatus. This book was written at the end of the decade, from the author’s new home in the UK.

By the way, expat Southern African crime writers could be a good area of study for some aspiring academic, with highly regarded Australian crime writer Peter Temple and Alexander McCall Smith of No.1 Ladies Detective Agency fame also born in the region. There are probably more.

But back to James McClure. As always, it would be wrong to ascribe his characters’ or even narrator’s point of view to the author. While it could be that the racism of the time was so insidious that it even contaminated the thinking of its opponents, the author deserves the benefit of the doubt. The racism in the book is not his.

In fact, the Kramer-Zondi series was in all likelihood purposely written as an exposé of apartheid. Issues of race and the legislation of the time provide key plot points in The Steam Pig – the story would’ve been unthinkable anywhere else or at any other time.

And in a way this very fact undermines the book for modern readers.

While many crime books set in earlier decades and exotic locations remained current and relevant, James McClure’s book hasn’t. The kind of thing the reader experiences as local or historical colour in books as varied as those by Raymond Chandler, Andrea Camilleri or Sjöwall and Wahlöö become a hindrance in The Steam Pig. There are too many references and motivations that only make sense in that particular environment and to informed readers.

It’s hard to appreciate the story without knowing that the Group Areas Act assigned different residential areas to each race, the Immorality Act outlawed sex between people of different races or that people could be born in one race and then be reassigned to another based on the kinkiness of their hair or some other potentially spurious characteristic – a decision that forces those affected to move house, change schools, lose their friends, change their salary and career prospects, and force them to use different public amenities from transport to toilets.

The setting of The Steam Pig is not only unfamiliar to modern readers, but almost unimaginable… even for someone who had experienced it first hand.

(Or do I find it unimaginable precisely because I had experienced it? There may be some psychological force at work that cannot allow me to acknowledge the insanity of the times I had witnessed and keep my own sanity. But that’s something for another day, another couch.)

My evaluation of James McClure’s The Steam Pig may be unduly coloured by personal experience. While I have no intention of reading another of his books, others should probably find one of this author’s books to read and make up their own mind. James McClure is a very good writer burdened with unpopular subject matter.

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