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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Artful Egg, by James McClure ($14.95)

I think the last time I read this book was when it came out in the 1980s. James McClure's eight-book Kramer and Zondi series was written during apartheid in South Africa. That ignominious period lasted from 1948 to its abolition in 1994. (Racism, however, doesn't require government permission to exist.)

Several works have recently re-focussed the spotlight on apartheid. Malla Nunn has a series set near the start of apartheid. Jassy Mackenzie and Wessel Ebersohn have contemporary post-apartheid series, whose characters still feel the repercussions of that time.

McClure's stories were shocking to the outside world, mostly naive to the day-to-day manifestations of apartheid. Although he grew up in South Africa and worked briefly as a reporter there, McClure fled to England when his criticisms of the government drew scrutiny. He lived a multi-faceted professional life and brought an international awareness to the horror of institutionalized racism. According to Mitzi Brunsdale's "Gumshoes: A Dictionary of Fictional Detectives," astonishingly, only one of McClure's books, "The Sunday Hangman," was banned in South Africa.

Tromp Kramer is an Afrikanner police detective and Mickey Zondi is his Bantu detective partner. It is implied that Zondi is smarter and a better detective than Tromp, having more restraint and better analytical skills. Both are victims of their time. Kramer teases Zondi, often calling him a "kaffir," the derogatory epithet for a black African. Zondi, as far as I can tell, has no equivalent word with which he can tease Kramer. It appears this relationship is a little lopsided. However, Kramer is a gadzillion times more accepting and liberal than his fellow whites.

There are the whites and the blacks, but there are also the browns. The brown underclass is Asian. One such second-class citizen, Ramjut Pillay, is the unfortunate postal worker who delivers the mail to the home of Naomi Stride, a rich and famous white author. He discovers her body and spends the rest of the book discombobulated and running from one outrageous situation to another. He is at first delighted that he may hold the key to her murder and become famous for solving the crime, then aghast that he may hold the key to the murder and will be punished for withholding it from the police.

Navigating the sticky politics of the police department, Kramer and Zondi fight not only the criminal forces but also their own fellow detectives, some of whom are brutal, corrupt, and/or incompetent. There is a lot of dark humor throughout the book, much of it provided by the police.

Is Naomi's adult son the villain? What about the liberal friends she had? The son's ex-girlfriend? A "Hamlet"-besotted academic stalker? There are many twisty roads for Kramer and Zondi to travel, while giving us a look into everyday life in the fictional town of Trekkersburg, Natal.

A second crime diverts the team temporarily. It's a sensitive case because one of the suspects is a former policeman, one who had the reputation of unnecessary violence in apprehending and questioning people. It's a clever bit of sleuthing that dispenses with that case, so the team can return to Naomi's murder.

It's easy to be morally stunned by the careless disregard whites had for non-whites during that period of time. McClure gives us dialogue rather than diatribe to show us how insidiously racism infected the culture. On the other hand, at the end he springs upon his audience a real historical event that greatly influenced the murderer. It doesn't make the author's murder less atrocious, but McClure is saying that there are more horrors in that part of the world, and apartheid is just one of them. If McClure could have a punchline it would be, "Now discuss among yourselves."

H.R.F. Keating included "The Artful Egg" in his book, "Crime and Mystery: The 100 Best Books." It's certainly outstanding on several different levels.

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