The Song Dog by James McClure [a guest post from Peter Job]

The Song Dog

 

It is probably unlikely that the younger adults amongst us in the KZN Midlands have come across the crime novels of James McClure. These feature the police detective duo of Lieutenant Tromp Kramer and Bantu Detective Sergeant Mickey Zondi, are set mostly in Trekkerburg ( Pietermaritzburg to you and me ), and are real crackerjack crime novels which won several awards. There are eight Kramer and Zondi novels, published between 1971 and 1991. The Song Dog is the last published, but the first chronologically in the series: the one in which the duo first encounter each other.

 

The Milieu

 

The current-day reader might have a few difficulties, as it were, approaching these books, as they are set firmly in Apartheid South Africa, and McClure pulls no punches with his language. Kramer is an Afrikaner policeman; Zondi is a “Bantu”, and many verbal exchanges jar in this day and age, being filled with words no longer used or permitted. Do not let this put you off – this is pretty much how it was in those days.

 

One also needs to understand that this is part of McClure’s purpose in the series – to show up the prejudice, the racism, the fears and the terrible horrors of Apartheid. In another book in the series – The Gooseberry Fool – he even takes the plot on a not-strictly-necessary detour to expose the terror and suffering of a forced removal.

 

Against this background you have the white lieutenant and the black sergeant who form a strong bond of friendship, respect and care, and it is Zondi who frequently is the one to uncover the key to the crime.

 

Off we go…

 

Late at night. In a wooden shack built on stilts in the mud at the edge of an estuary in northern Natal, a man and a young woman are having wild and passionate sex. Taking a smoke-break they hear a cough. “A croc” she says, but he is doubtful. She tries to get him back to the fun when a second cough is heard. He wilts. She giggles at him, so he hits her, perhaps “a fraction too hard.” Her blue eyes stare, unblinking, while her bladder voids. Another cough. He takes his pistol, rushes out the door, trips on the stairs, falls in the mud, dropping the pistol. He gets up, stoops to pick it up, when ka-boom! The shack explodes to kingdom come, killing him and blowing the young woman to bits, some big, some small.

 

Lieutenant Tromp Kramer, recently transferred from the Free State to Trekkerburg Murder and Robbery, is sent to investigate. The deceased man was a policeman, ubiquitously described as “one of the best”, but one who would buy biltong and present it as his own as a gift to suck up to the Colonel in Trekkerburg.

 

Much more than that of the plot you will need to read for yourself. Suffice it to say that things move apace, the prose is tight, and the mysteries deepen. An unsolved death of a man in a car accident caused by swerving to miss a train truck that was not there. A man found dead in a cane mill vat, having been turned into a human toffee-apple. These seem to be related, but how? Tough guy Kramer investigates.

 

Kramer also meets the widow Fourie for the first time, his companion and lover in the subsequent books.

 

At several turns in the plot Kramer encounters a suspicious black civilian, wearing his jacket inside out to expose the shiny lining in the way of “rural people”. “Shortarse”, as Kramer calls him, seems to be following in Kramer’s footsteps, and this annoys him. They finally meet after Kramer has set a trap for the killer and ends up getting shot at and winged by a bullet. Shortarse is Bantu Detective Sergeant Mickey Zondi, who comes to Kramer’s rescue, to be addressed in typical style by Kramer:

 

“Christ, man, what sort of a k_____ are you?”

“Black, same as all the others, Lieutenant.”

 

And the partnership is born when Zondi offers Kramer a post-firefight Texan.

 

As in any good whodunnit, the killer is unsuspected, and identified only near the end. A cracking read if you have a few hours to spare, and you can get a copy at your local charity shop, Kalahari or Amazon.

 

The Author

 

The late James McClure was a British citizen who was born and schooled in South Africa. He went to Cowan House and Maritzburg College, and became a crime reporter for The Natal Witness ( as it was then ). Later he moved to Britain and worked on several papers there. The Kramer and Zondi novels were published after his leaving South Africa ( perhaps he did not fancy an encounter with the Special Branch ).

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‘The Forty Rules of Love’ quotes

Little did she know that this was going to be not just any book, but the book that changed her life. In the time she was reading it, her life would be rewritten. 14-15

 

I hunt everywhere for a life worth living and a knowledge worth knowing. Having roots nowhere, I have everywhere to go.

 

Moments are born and moments die. For new experiences to come to life, old ones need to wither away.92

 

My life is complete and fulfilled, in that I have been blessed with the three things I hold most dear: knowledge, virtue, and the capability to help others find God. 98

 

A saint belongs to all humanity. 100

 

Personally, I didn’t think there was anything wrong with sadness. Just the opposite – hypocrisy made people happy and truth made them sad. 102

 

Believe it or not, they call this purgatory on earth “holy suffering”. 104

 

Infidelity had a smell. 63

 

Love exists within each of us from the moment we are born and waits to be discovered from then on. 112

 

The past is a whirlpool. If you let it dominate your present moment, it will suck you in. 135

 

Is there a way to grasp what love means without becoming a lover first?

Love cannot be explained. It can only be experienced.

Love cannot be explained, yet it explains all. 194

 

When you step into the zone of love, you won’t need language. 220

 

“Religious rule and prohibitions are important,” he said. “But they should not be turned into unquestionable taboos. It is with such awareness that I drink the wine you offer me today, believing with all my heart that there is sobriety beyond the drunkenness of love.” 246

 

Every true love and friendship is a story of unexpected transformation. If we are the same person before and after we loved, that means that we haven’t loved enough. 277

 

Words give me openings to break through the darkness in my heart. 288

 

By and large over time, pain turns to grief, grief turns into silence, and silence turns into lonesomeness, as vast and bottomless as the dark oceans… You think you cannot live anymore. You think that the light of your soul has been put out and that you will stay in the dark forever. But when you are engulfed by such solid darkness, when you have both eyes closed to the world, a third eye opens in your heart. And only then do you come to realise that eyesight conflicts with inner knowledge. No eye sees so clear and sharp as the eye of love. After grief comes another season, another valley, another you. And the lover who is nowhere to be found, you start to see everywhere.

You see him in every drop of water that falls into the ocean, in the high tide that follows the waxing moon, or in the morning wind that spreads its fresh smell; you see him in the geomancy symbols in the sand, in the tiny particles of rock glittering under the sun, in the smile of a newborn baby, or in your throbbing vein. 341

 

Love has taken away all of my practices and habits. Instead it has filled me with poetry. And though I know that there are no words that can express this inner journey of mine, I believe in words. I am a believer of words. 342

 

[…] if there was anything worse in the eyes of society than a woman abandoning her husband for another man, it was a woman abandoning her future for the present moment. 346

The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak

The Forty Rules of Love image

 

[Published 2011 by Penguin]

 

If everyone took the principles behind ‘The Forty Rules of Love’ to heart, we could change the world. After reading many reviews comparing this book to the work of Paulo Coelho, I have to disagree – this is a profoundly moving, special book with its basis in history, yet with modern applicability in the personal and the grander sense.

 

Ella is a housewife and mother, set in her routine, finding her way back into her career in publishing after many years. It is through her work that the manuscript called Sweet Blasphemy comes into her life. Exploring the relationship between the famous poet, Rumi, and the dervish and nomad, Shams of Tabriz, her heart is opened to the universal ideas of love proposed in the 1200s. As she embarks on a personal journey through these characters, her interest in the book’s writer peaks and her self-discovery changes her life forever.

 

The novel flits between present day and the ancient; the average life of a western woman meeting the basic tenets of ancient eastern philosophy and religion – principles and words that have survived centuries; that we can identify with in spite of the years and how the world has changed. Be warned, I believe some inner transformation is inevitable with this book – a reminder about the omnipotence of love over eons and the importance of finding it within ourselves.

Some unreviewed books of 2013

Heart of the Haiku

 

From the conception of the haiku as a style of poetry in 17th century Japan, it has developed into a widely-accepted art form. I loved every word of this essay – wanting to write out huge passages of it to remember forever. It comes highly recommended as a vignette I will return to many times.

 

The Catastrophist image

 

 

As much as I enjoyed this book, it is a good example of how writing can become dated. Based in the Congo in the midst of independence, it retains the shock that comes with reading about the struggle for freedom in Africa. Exploring how a person and a place can have an effect on love, it was a compelling read – completely shocking and sad at times.

 

The Finkler Question image

 

Centering around a seeming anti-semitic attack in the middle of the night, this is a very clever book that explores friendship and a battle of identity. It is very well-written – a very clever book.

 

Perlmann's Silence image

 

When a well-respected academic in linguistics goes to a conference and is expected to read a ground-breaking paper, he plagiarises portions from an absent member of the fold, only to find out that he is to attend once it is too late. It is a leviathan and very clever read, filled with fear and guilt, on how a man can lose confidence in himself and assume an identity that is not really his.

 

Torn image

 

A must-read for South Africans (although somewhat lacking in true African voice in my opinion), Torn starts with a double murder and explores the various facets of a modern-day South Africa with all of her biases and developments. Overall enjoyable reading, albeit on a level I believe would be better enjoyed by teenagers.

 

The Drowning People

 

I don’t like to write bad reviews, and perhaps it is only because it was compared to ‘Rebecca’ which is one of my favourite books, but I was somewhat disappointed by ‘The Drowning People’. A murder where the perpetrator is revealed, we deal with the reasons behind it… Maybe it just wasn’t for me.