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 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 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 ).