South Africa Crime fiction – the novel’s form as mediation of social conditions?

OF-COPS-ROBBERS-MIKE-NICOL-9781415203767-197x300Of Cops and Robbers

Mike Nicol


By Leon de Kock

Mike Nicol’s new thriller, Of Cops and Robbers, got me thinking once again about the relation of ‘crime’ writing in and of South Africa to what one might call the ‘sociopolitical’ zone, that space which has traditionally engaged ‘serious’ writing ever since Olive Schreiner shook off the African exotic in the late nineteenth century and turned towards an approximation of social realism. Nicol’s thriller-novels, including this one, present a curious mix of, on the one hand, informed political – and historical – savvy, such as one would expect from a senior writer-journalist and commentator like this author, and then, on the other, a slew of generic thriller bon mots. These stylized typicalities of the genre – deadpan humour in the face of dead humans, dry witticisms signaling wised-up discernment about universally corrupt dealings – make for good thriller-reading. We should not be too eager to slam an author such as Nicol for doing what the genre demands, and doing it rather well, too.

If, however, one were reading more purposefully for sociopolitical content, and for formal innovation in line with such subject-matter – a tendency which Nicol’s novels invite, despite Nicol disclaiming any serious ‘political’ intent – then one might find these generic elements somewhat limiting. As some academic critics have argued, in Nicol’s case in particular, the generic tics limit the range and scope of representing individual subjectivity, and they foreshorten the novel’s ability to probe social formations beyond formulaic patterns. Rather than re-animate the serious-political-analysis versus the thriller-cliché argument – one which was widely aired following my SLiPnet review of Roger Smith’s novel Dust Devils in 2012 – I’d like here to avoid the starkly divisive terms of that particular debate and ask whether we might find some value in asking a different question, which is this: might the generic constraints of noir (which is essentially what Nicol writes) be seen to be a more rather than a less adequate form in which to capture key elements of a certain kind of politics? Upon reading Nicol’s Of Cops and Robbers, which I found both entertaining and viscerally offputting, both limiting and revelatory (in spite of Nicol’s evident mastery of form and fluidity of style), it struck me that one might read a novel such as this within a Lukacsian lens of novelistic form as a mediation of social conditions. I like to think of this mediating function as fictional adequation.

The question that arose for me was this: might it be true that the stunted emotional range, and the blunted motivational scope, of key characters in Nicol’s novel, serve as a necessary adequation of social conditions within an economy of severe moral cupidity? Two examples of key characters in Of Cops and Robbers are Jacob Mkezi and Dr Gold. Mkezi is a disgraced former police commissioner in the current ruling party who has turned to mafia-style big business (his peons routinely assassinate anyone with evidence against him), and his dealings here include the sale of a cache of rhino horns discovered in Angola. The rhino horns were harvested as part of dirty dealings in the South-African backed Angolan war against Swapo in the 1970s.

Further plot intricacies aside, the novel successfully links corruption within the current plutocracy in Pretoria with similar degeneration in the old Nationalist regime via a curious alliance between the ANC’s Mkezi and Dr Gold, based on the former Nationalist Finance Minister Dr Nico Diederichs, who is widely rumoured to have been implicated in illicit gold-bullion shifting to Zurich. In Of Cops and Robbers, a member of parliament with information about Dr Gold’s secret dealings is assassinated on the East Rand, along with his wife. This incident is based on the murders of Dr Robert Smit and his wife, Jean-Cora, also in the 1970s. The novelistic circumstances are quite deliberately set up as a parallel with the actual events of Smit and his wife’s murder.

The double-agent role of Mkezi, who profits from both the Nationalist and the ANC power bases, is not so much a direct parallel with actual events as a distillation of many cases in which such double-dealing can be shown to have occurred. Nicol’s novel also makes it plain that corrupt political dealings are a common theme in both the Nationalist and the ANC regimes.

The complex historical details here excavated, and their trails, which the reader can trace both backwards and forwards in political time and space, are adroitly handled. They make the novel interesting and readable, especially since Nicol integrates such socio-political coordinates within a cops-and-robbers form, not to put too fine a point on it.

Yes, the book is engaging, a ripping yarn and hard to put down (which is more than one can say for a lot of fiction), but how ‘true’ is it? This is the hard part. Indeed, one might run a postgraduate seminar on the question of ‘truth’ in fiction, the starting point being that ‘truth’ must always be an approximation, a certain adequation of form to content. The process of using certain conventions of form, with an accompanying vocabulary and style, might be seen to partially ‘capture’ or ‘shade in’ some but not all facets of any phenomenon or process. If one accepts this as a working proposition, then one might ask: what kind of particular shading-in does the crime-thriller offer for South African sociopolitical conditions, within a distinctly noir expression of its typical features? Think of Raymond Chandler, or Dashiell Hammett, to mention two classic examples, and the use of a markedly dry kind of savor faire to describe what amounts to the horrifying physical cruelty often evident in ‘casual’ killing. Why the driest of tones, the most deadpan wit imaginable, and a thoroughly offbeat (seemingly nonchalant) literary style, in describing such repugnant human acts? What ‘encoding’ or prior processing of morality, of a moral economy, is moulded into such stylized gestures?

Clearly, one might begin to find the answer in the ‘sophistication’ of the private eye – she or he has seen this too many times before to be too badly shaken. The PI has become hardened to an essentially degenerate urban or political scene, and his ‘noir’ responses encode a healthy skepticism about the possibility of human betterment, or any kind of optimism about social progress. This is the way it is. This is the dark side of modernity. Better to maintain a gruff, savvy, bleak sense of humour about it. The question arises, however, whether there isn’t more to the story than the story is able to tell, given the form?

Swing back to Mike Nicol and South African crime fiction in general, and the immediate observation one might make is that, mostly contra to classical noir, here the crooks are very often in government, or working for government (hence the ambiguity in Nicol’s title, which blurs the distinction between ‘cops’ and ‘robbers’). In South African crime fiction, the usually civil space of noir is significantly enlarged (although the cops in classical noir, also government lackeys, are by no means angels). Might one argue that in South African (and African) crime fiction, the government runs the mafia, rather than the other way around? It is an interesting speculation, despite exceptions to the rule, because it is precisely in such enlargement that overlaps between the generic thriller and the ‘political’ occur in current local crime fiction.

Instead of setting the one up against the other, as the debate so far has tended to do, might one not see the very use of ‘generic’ noir to capture (or annex) the political as a formal innovation, a distinct adequation of form (in a very particular generic expression) to social content? What such an adequation implies, in the baldest of terms, is that the current style of political machination (remember the recent case of Dina Pule?), just like the shady doings of Dr Gold (don’t forget Nat skelms like Dr Diederichs), don’t deserve much more than a noir response; that such human landscape is adequately rendered in a form which need not look too deeply into questions of individual subjectivity or characterological complexity. The moral economy of near-blind cupidity to which such behaviour subscribes is so hollowed out and debased that the hardboiled gesture is the characterisation it positively invites.

Certainly, such a conclusion accounts for the sheer satisfaction I often get when reading some of Nicol’s stories. Yes, this is what it deserves. Yes, that’s the truth of it. Yes, now he’s pinned the bastard down. But that’s just my feeling, both subjective and quasi-objective – based on my own lifetime’s worth of reading a country we call South Africa. And this is where the problem lies when assessing how ‘adequate’ any work of fiction is or might be to the truth – the answer lies not in an external assessment, but in an inner, readerly sense of how close to the mark the writer is, or could be.

Certainly, one can do factually-based comparisons, check the story against the archive, but that will not account for the ‘truth’ of style and form, which is always an approximation, a variable gauge.

This is why writers need lots of readers, lots of reviews, lots of discussion – so that a critical mass of reception might eventually indicate a kind of consensus, the way great works are known to be great by the force of continued attention. If writers like Nicol can continue to gauge the temperature of the social while also entertaining their readers, then it might be a good idea to keep reading them.

  • Leon de Kock is professor of English at Stellenbosch University.

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