What with World Cup Soccer kicking off today in South Africa, it seemed like the right time to sing the praises of Soho Press, which just reissued The Steam Pig, James McClure's 1971 debut.
McClure, a native of Johannesburg, South Africa, became a British journalist. His first crime novel, The Steam Pig, changed everything for him; it won the Crime Writers' Association Gold Dagger and, by 1974, McClure was writing mysteries full time. He returned to journalism in 1994 and kept at that until his death in 2006, but his eight South African mysteries featuring Afrikaner Lieutenant Tromp Kramer and Zulu Detective Sergeant Mickey Zondi hold a place in every mystery readers heart.
Speaking of hearts, in The Steam Pig a beautiful blonde is believed to have died from cardiac arrest. But nothing is ever simple in a murder mystery and it is soon discovered that she has been killed by a bicycle spoke puncture to the heart, a Bantu gangster murder method. And while the crime is intriguing, now after the dismantling of apartheid, the partnership of Kramer and Zondi proves to be even more fascinating; their relationship develops over the eight books and their two-different-worlds knowledge blends to make a strong team working in a society of twisted politics and racial separation.
The crime takes place in Trekkersburg and is based on McClure's hometown of Pietermaritzburg. The town is a "laager" or defensive encampment surrounded by armoured vehicles; the blacks are called "kaffirs” (an offensive word, not dissimilar to our n-word); and, among the Afrikaners, the English are hated. This is a town of Dutch descent and Lieutenant Kramer is a member of murder and robbery squad. He's a Boer and a believer in the supremacy of the white race. Zondi is a sergeant and is committed to his job, but faces the perils of apartheid as well as the danger his profession brings him.
South Africa has change, the world that McClure knew is gone but not forgotten; The Steam Pig offers a chilling look into apartheid. In a world where attempting to pass for white is a crime, there are few safe places to hide. The Steam Pig immerses you in that world and offers a thrilling story besides. As the New York Times Book Review said of it , “James McClure's first novel arrives like a slam in the kidneys . . ." Four decades later, that punch remains strong.
Next month, Soho will reissue the second in the Kramer and Zondi series, The Caterpillar Cop. Each is available in paperback at $14.