Latin American Crime Fiction

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Introduction to Latin American Crime Fiction

International crime fiction has risen in popularity as the emphasis on plot over other literary techniques transcends cultural boundaries, thus making the texts unique in their own right as well as models for the development of other works. Latin American crime novels are certainly not the exception since the genre is flourishing and it differs from its continental counterparts in the sense that it is far more political, surrealist, and overall dark.

The following works center on these themes:  Hypermasculinity, Post-Traumatic Stress, Influence of Religion and Sexuality, Privileges of the Affluent/ Class Stratification, Drug Trafficking, and Violence Against and by Women.

Titles, Countries, and Genres We’ve Explored

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  • Alone in the Crowd |  Luiz Alfredo García-Roza | Brazil | Mystery and detective novel
  • Sultry Moon | Mempo Giardinelli | Argentina | Psychological thriller
  • A Crack in the Wall | Claudia Piñeiro | Argentina | Thriller and mystery  
  • The Sound of Things Falling | Juan Gabriel Vásquez | Colombia | Political thriller
  • Silver Bullets | Elmer Mendoza | Mexico | Mystery and detective novel
  • Havana Red | Leonardo Padura | Cuba | Mystery and detective novel

Alone in the Crowd: An Inspector Espinosa Mystery by Luiz Alfredo Garcia Roza a detective/mystery novel set in downtown Copacabana, Brazil in the mid-2000s, follows chief inspector Espinosa’s investigation of an old woman who fell in front of the bus… or was she pushed?  The case’s main suspect, bank clerk Hugo Breno, is a man of Espinosa’s past, and, in order to solve the case at hand, Espinosa must look back to a case that haunted his childhood:  the death of a young girl in his neighborhood.

Mempo Giardinelli’s Sultry Moon opens with Ramiro Bernandez’s return to his close Argentine community after attending school in France. Thirty-two-year-old Ramiro’s attention falls on his thirteen-year-old neighbor, Araceli, and he sexually assaults her in the middle of the night. His crime sets of a chain of other crimes, with Ramiro staging the murder of Araceli’s father as a suicide and his repeated raping of Araceli. Ramiro explains that the “sultry moon” is to blame for his behavior and he evades police who have little evidence against him, other than speculation. Although Ramiro believes that he has choked Araceli to death at the end of Sultry Moon, his escape is disrupted by the appearance of a young girl in his hotel room.

The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez is about a young man named Antonio and his interactions with ex-drug dealer, Ricardo Laverde. Their lives become intertwined and woven together as they are both shot, leaving Antonio in a reeling state of post-traumatic stress while Ricardo is killed. Antonio goes on to meet Ricardo’s daughter and learns the story behind this man’s drug trafficking past.

A Crack in the Wall, by Claudia Pineiro, was translated from Spanish to English and it jumps from past to present. The book is a nutshell is narrated by a guy named Pablo who is an architect. He works for an architecture small firm with a group of coworkers. They encounter this guy named Nelson Jara comes into the office and he complains about a crack in the wall and Paulo  thought Jara wanted the firm to fix it but instead Jara want money. Pablo and his co workers are not going to give Jara money for his crack in his apartment. Jara becomes obsessive and he starts stalking the firm and that causes his death.   

Havana Red is the first novel of Leonardo Padura’s four-part series, which he refers to as the ‘Havana Quartet.’ This novel follows the protagonist, Lieutenant Mario Conde, who had been suspended after an altercation with one of his coworkers. He is nonetheless asked to rejoin the police department by his boss, Major Rangel, in order to investigate a case about the death of a transvestite. Conde will make use his love of writing and knowledge on religion in order to solve the murder mystery.

Silver Bullets by Elmer Mendoza is part of the Lefty Mendieta series, in this novel we follow Mendieta as he attempts to track down a killer who used silver bullets to kill an up and coming district attorney. What follows is a series of strange encounters in mansions and drug dens and the meeting of a large cast of characters ranging from a beautiful mob boss’ daughter to a flashy transitive.

Themes

Hypermasculinity

We noticed, within the grand majority of our novels, that hypermasculinity served as a societal norm and, in many cases, an unspoken yet accepted societal behavior.  The integration of machismo, or embedded societal pressure of strong pride in masculinity, is more developed in Latin America than in the majority of the rest of the world, leading to a system of unequal treatment toward women (115).  Hypermasculinity appeared as a major theme within Alone in the Crowd.  Throughout the entirety of the novel, women are only viewed as one-dimensional sexual objects, even to the protagonist.  The main character (who is seen as the “hero” of the story, as he fights crime, even takes a bullet while working) Detector Espinosa’s interactions with women are strictly for by necessity or for sex.  He has loose relationships with women (including Irene, whom he has been seeing casually for 10 years without labeling a relationship), but anytime a woman (even Irene) tries to become further involved.  After Espinosa passively mentions details about the case, Irene replies, “And you think he tossed the old lady under the bus? And you think that when he was eleven he threw that girl down the stairs?” Espinosa gives her a look that prevents conversation and asserts his dominance.   Irene then immediately submits to his dominant assertion, saying, “Sorry, honey, that was in bad taste.  Let’s not talk about the man anymore” (Garcia-Roza 132).  Further, after attempting to engage in sexual intercourse with his lover’s friend, Vania, Espinosa is rejected and feels extremely uncomfortable about his male identity.  Every interaction moving forward with Vania, Espinosa acts in a very rude and demeaning, even hostile manner (first acting accusatory and dismissive then eventually progressing into taunting her and making derogatory comments toward her).  Rejection from a woman results in Espinosa feeling immense insecurity and an immediate need to treat Vania in an demeaning way in order to make himself feeling stronger, more “manly.”

In Sultry Moon, the concept of hypermasculinity clouds how Ramiro understands himself and how he rationalizes his crimes. For Ramiro, his position and power as a man allows him the privileges and prerogative to act out his frightening motives, a priority not given to women. After assaulting Araceli, Ramiro muses that, “Only then did he realize that he hated women. ‘I’m a misogynistic,’ he laughed. ‘No, he wasn’t exactly that…Several female friends had accused him of being a male chauvinist…Everyday scatterbrained feminists, he had shot back. That they laughed. They knew nothing about life” (Giardinelli 44). In dismissing himself as a chauvinist, Ramiro distances himself from the reality; his disregard divulges that he knows his misogyny is problematic, but he does not appear to care. He sees even his female friends as “scatterbrained feminists,” arguing that he is superior to them, as a male. His belief that his female friends do not understand “life,” confines women as innocent and innocuous compared to his masculine might. His portrayal of women here speaks to the extensive entanglement that hypermasculinity plays within Sultry Moon. Ramiro, in Sultry Moon, maneuvers masculinity to achieve his power over the victims he manipulates and murders. The toxicity of hypermasculinity emerges throughout the novel as a force that has actual ramifications of irrational violence.

The hypermasculinity seen in Silver Bullets by Elmer Mendoza was less concerned with the machismo and more concerned with this idea of homophobia in a homosocial setting. That is to say the detectives and police of my novel were often afraid of being considered by others as gay and would use gay slurs as a way of projecting this fear onto other people. The use of the word “faggot” is not used a lot by other characters throughout the novel but when our protagonist is in the police station the word is used as an insult as a way of combating this fear of homosexuality. At one point in the novel, the detectives uses physical forces as a way of showing his dominance over another man, “He took the emissary by the lapels, lifted him off the ground, and threw him against the wall: Listen asshole, take me to your boss right this minute” (54). The sudden display of physical violence and intimidation plays into this idea of hypermasculinity. The use of these gay slurs and the sudden display of violence is part of the homosocial institution of the police force. In fact, these actions only strengthen these homosocial relationships because they act as a bonding mechanism for this police brotherhood. This brotherhood essentially values the bond of brother and homosocial relationships over the law and a way of reinforcing these is by having each member identify more with the men around them then the outside world.

Similarly  in Havana Red, there is less focus on machismo and more so on homophobia. Because Cuba is a fairly Catholic country, its people are against same-sex relationships as well as marriages. This being said, the protagonist, Lieutenant Mario Conde used homosexual slurs against one of the suspects, Alberto Marqués, after  he had interviewed the latter in the case of the murder of Alexis Arayán. After speaking with Marqués, Conde meets with his partner, Manuel Palacios and tells the him “A very peculiar fellow who’s f’ed up my whole day. He’s queerer than a Sunday afternoon…” (48). Although Conde was intrigued by the conversation he had with Marqués, he to reassert his sexuality, and in doing so, he had to critique Marqués in front of his partner.  

As we’ve seen in many other texts that we’ve read over the course of the semester, women have tended to lack a central presence (many of the female characters secondary characters) unless they are victims at the hands of male characters (for instance, Lucy in Disgrace or Sayra in Sin Nombre).  Likewise, in almost all of the books that we read, women served as secondary to male characters, mirroring the conditioned behavior within society in which men put themselves at a higher societal level than women.  This hypermasculinity reinforces the notion of the patriarchy within society, making it more difficult to dismantle.

Post-Traumatic Stress

Another intriguing theme that we found in a few of our books was post-traumatic stress.  As opposed to some of the other more socially embedded themes that served more as backdrops to the main plot/action of the story (such as hypermasculinity and crime), post-traumatic stress fueled the main plots of both Alone in the Crowd and The Sound of Things Falling.  The plot of Alone in the Crowd centers around how the death of a child in Detective Espinosa’s past influences a case in the modern day when the main suspect of the present crime is a vital member of the child’s death in the past.  Throughout the novel, Espinosa has several asides in which he tries to jog his suppressed memory of the death of a little girl in his neighborhood.

Throughout The Sound of Things Falling, the main character, Antonio is trapped in a state of post-traumatic stress after being shot, having also witnessed the death of his companion, Ricardo Laverde. The novel places a large emphasis on PTSD affecting not only the main character, but the nation of Colombia in general. It is seen in Antonio as he recounts the following thoughts: “I didn’t feel anything: I was distracted: the fear distracted me. I imagined the faces of the murderers, hidden behind the visors; the blast of the shots and the continuous whistle in my throbbing eardrums, the sudden apparition of blood” (Vásquez 55). Everywhere he goes, the stress and anxiety follows him. His wife begins to have frustrations when she says to him, “Antonio, Bogotá is not a war zone. There aren’t bullets floating around out there, the same thing’s not going to happen to all of us” (Vásquez 59). These two scenes illustrate what it is like for the main character as he deals with both physical and psychological effects of his trauma.

Overall, it can be seen that post-traumatic stress is a common theme in Latin American genre novels. According to multiple articles, it is apparent that, including PTSD, there are many health conditions in which more research is needed across the continent. PTSD is one of many imminent problems that threaten this part of the world, and thus should be focused on.  This connects to our Post Colonial Crime Fiction class in the respect that post-traumatic stress is an issue that is reflective of a post-colonial era– many citizens of Bogotá, for instance, are suffering from the trauma of living in a society that was once ruled by another country.

Influence of Religion and Sexuality

Religion is a major theme in Latin American crime fiction as it aides one in living one’s life. Therefore, most Latin Americans are devout followers of Catholicism and with their faith, come biases against issues pertaining to homosexuality and same-sex marriage. In the case of Havana Red, Lieutenant Mario Conde notices that the transvestite, Alexis Arayán was murdered on August 6th and this is on the day of the Catholic celebration of the Transfiguration. Conde mentions that according to the Bible, this was precisely the day in which “… Jesus was transformed before three of his disciples on Mount Tabor, and, from a cloud of light, God called on the apostles to listen to him forever” (23).  Conde is baffled by the mere coincidence that a transvestite could be murdered on the same day of this religious holiday. Thus, as the novel progresses, connections between religion and themes like that of sexuality begin to surface.

Convinced that this was no longer something that occurred by chance, Conde seeks to find out if Alexis owned a Bible. He sets out to the house where the young man was living at the time and encounters Alexis’ friend and roommate, Alberto Marqués. Per conversation with Marqués, Conde asks the man if Alexis had a Bible and the latter confirms that the young man did in fact have one. Conde notices that the passages with regard to the Transfiguration were ripped out, however on one of them said the following: “God the Father, why do you force him to suffer so much? (158). Conde hence gains clarity of the situation and concludes that “… Alexis didn’t dress as a transvestite because he liked to. He was either mad, or a mystic as you say, determined to represent an act of transfiguration with which he was aiming to…” (158). Marqués finishes Conde thought by saying that Alexis was aiming to be crucified as the young man was “… afraid of killing himself… Remember Alexis was a Catholic, and Catholicism condemns suicide, but his religion also condemned homosexuality” (159). In other words, Alexis wanted to be murdered under the name of God.

The novel concludes with the reader finding out that Alexis’ father, Faustino Arayán was the former’s murderer. According to Conde, Faustino most likely murdered his son because the young man “… did, said, demanded or reminded his father of something so terrible that Faustino decided to kill him” (206). Alexis seemed beside himself and was suicidal and in addition, blamed his father for his personal tragedy. The note scribbled in the Bible hence allows this idea to come full circle as after it was written, Alexis dressed as woman, met up with his father, the two had an argument, and the result was Faustino murdering him. In this vein, religion and its intersectionality with other themes is certainly something unique to Latin American texts.

In Silver Bullets there is a strange, almost Emersonian view of God by the killer. His obsession with a women is what causes him to murder her lover but his strange mental state and his disturbed nature changes how he views God and the divine. At one point in the novel he states, “My God has eyes and nothing escapes him, my God has ears and hears all, my God has skin and feels everything; he shall soon be here to set things straight in the empire shall pay: all the criminals will start collars, the corrupt judges the people whose of the price of coffee and tobacco all of them will pay” (57). This strange view on God is mixed with the murders own hatred of women and he combines his strange manifesto with his own desire to be with this women. Ultimately, however she takes her own life and this causes a further belief that his actions are being used for the glory of God. This belief that his actions are somehow justify reminded me of The White Tiger in the way that Balram believed he was correct for murdering his master despite the fact that is was unjustified. This type of rationalization is seen in both novels I was more disturbed by the display in Silver Bullets because of this strange way in which the murderer would speak.

In Sultry Moon, a corrupted sense of sexuality darkens the over the plotline. Ramiro’s considers his wild longing for underage Araceli to be acceptable because of her beauty. Ramiro thinks to himself that, “Araceli was uncontrollably insatiable, and so was he. Any evil thing was possible for them if they were together. The crime was to live like that, sultry like the moon that was bearing witness to their embrace” (Giardinelli 69). He sees his intense sexuality as a result of the “sultry moon” of Argentina. Instead of admitting his own role in his crimes, Ramiro looks to the “sultry moon” as his siren. The personification of the moon as a seductress permeates the novel with a sense that sexuality is ever-present in Ramiro’s existence and he can not escape it. As a dangerous and overwhelming force, sexuality in Sultry Moon is seen as an explanation, instead of an excuse, for crime, creating an unsettling portrayal of desire.

Privileges of the Affluent and Class Stratification

This is another theme that has been recurring throughout the semester and as we have seen, those on the top are bereft of punishment. For instance, in Havana Red, the murderer of Alexis Arayán was his father, Faustino Arayán. One would assume that the man would be sent to prison, however Conde is well aware that would not be the case for “He was Faustino Arayán and much to the Count’s disgust, they wouldn’t shut him inside a jail with murderers of every kind and type…” (209). In other words, Faustino would in fact receive jail time, but it would be in such a way that would he essentially be pampered and then freed after a few years.

In the book, A Crack in the Wall, Pablo the main character was not struggling at all. His class status was middle class and he was very good at his job. It was clear throughout the play he had a passion for architecture. “Pablo is drawing, with a skill that comes naturally to him as walking, talking, or breathing” (Pineiro 8). He was very focused on his craft almost to good. In the book, his co-workers were the same status as Pablo, middle class. So, when Pablo and his co-workers killed Jara, nobody would accept that crime coming from middle class people. The way they got rid of the body was so smooth and effortless. “How can Pablo deny what he knows, and what Marta knows and what Borla knows: that Nelson Jara is dead, buried a few feet beneath the heavy-wear tiles over which the three of them walk every day on their way into or out of the [architecture] office, under the concrete floor of the parking lot, exactly where they left him that night, three years ago” (Pineiro 12). They put the body in a mud-pit and they waited for the mud to dry on top. They put cement on top of his body and they built the architect office on top of his body. The police did not appear in the book because of their class status. It is obvious that Pablo and the co-workers were privileged because nobody of authority or power questioned about a crime that ended in death. In the book, A Crack in the Wall, it is too clear that privileges of the affluent and class stratification is a main theme throughout.

Drug Trafficking

As organized crime and drug trafficking, specifically in regard to drug rings such as Colombian cocaine trafficking, are extremely prevalent within Latin American society, drug trafficking was a common part of the background or foreground of many of the novels we read.  Although it is not the center of the novel, drug trafficking serves as a backdrop of the setting of Copacabana.  Espinosa has lived in Copacabana his entire life and has grown up immersed alongside gang violence, even noting that he could sleep through the shots fired in the slums of Copacabana at nighttime.  The indifference to gang violence with which Espinosa, as well as lifelong Copacabana resident Hugo Bruno, absently references the city reminds the reader of how embedded it is into their culture, like City of God or Sin Nombre.  However, the novel doesn’t focus on the crime itself; similarly to life in Brazil, gang violence does not prevent people from living their everyday lives.

Additionally, drug trafficking ties into the plot of The Sound of Things Falling. As Ricardo says in the novel, “They put it in plastic bags, put the bags on a plane, we provide the simplest thing, a twin-engine Cessna. I get in the plane, take it full of one thing, and bring it back with something else… no matter how bad it goes, from every trip we come back with sixty, seventy grand, sometimes more” (Vasquez 209). The character of Ricardo’s wealth is entirely produced by piloting drugs to the United States, as well as the Caribbean islands, from Colombia.  It is the way in which Laverde sustains a living, and for a long time, he is able to get away with it. Things come crashing down for him when he is finally caught.

Drug trafficking is a theme that has a large relevance to Post-Colonial Crime Fiction as a whole. Throughout the semester we talked about characters who commit crimes in order to make a living in their often times dysfunctional economies.  While drug trafficking may not be seen in all of the novels, it is evidently a part of the larger concept of “register of improvisations,” in which one engages in criminal activity to survive.

Violence Against and By Women

Although violence against women exists as an extension of the realism that Latin American crime fiction attempts to portray, some of the crime fiction chosen has shown an antithetical action: violence committed by women. At times, the violence we have read has appeared senseless and shocking and other times, it has been portrayed as fighting back against the men that dominate the lives of the women in our novels. Still, the contrast of violence against and by women demonstrates both the suppression and strength of women in our novels, expressing a deeper appreciation of the nuances of the women explored.

In Sultry Moon, Ramiro’s abuse of Araceli becomes reversed as Araceli actually presses Ramiro to be her lover and vows to protect him from the law, lying to police about their relationship. The shift in the relationship, with Araceli acting as the instigator of their relationship, represents an odd dynamic between the two and although Ramiro submits, he becomes troubled by how Araceli controls him. She forces him to follow her commands and she hurts him when he does not. Ramiro remarks that, “But in reality he was afraid. That young girl was completely unpredictable. It terrified him to realize whose hands he was in. How long would that alibi last, that alibi that she, herself, had given him that morning in order to get him out of jail?” (Giardinelli 96). Instead of Araceli acting afraid of him, she becomes the one in control, the one that could decide Ramiro’s fate. Araceli, in a way, absorbs the violence committed against her and manifests it by her own sort of violence against him. Rather than being one-dimensional, the violence against Araceli and the violence she herself performs complicate the notion of a woman’s victimhood in Sultry Moon.

In Silver Bullets we have an interesting changes from the usual dynamic of women being the victim of violence to women being the perpetrator. Different from books like Disgrace which have a women having violence being committed against them and the way in which the novel is shaped by the violence. In Silver Bullets a women in the novel is pushed to commit a murder because of her fragile mental state and it is this idea that separates this novel from other novels we have read in the class. As we see in the novel, “She paused to chamber a round, then continued down the hall . . . Training the pistol on him, she went up to the lamp but did not switch it on” (7). This sudden change of roles within the genre is really interesting but even with this apparent difference women in the novel still struggle to have any really agency. That is to say that most of them are defined by their relationships to men in the novel rather by any innate qualities they themselves may have possessed.

Following the novels from Africa and Asia that we have studied throughout the semester, the theme of violence against women in the Latin American crime fiction we analyzed echos a disdain and disrespect for women. Women are seen as objects and neglected casualties in our novels. However, violence by women demonstrates a different facet to the overused idea of women being worthless. The violence by women mimics the other violence shown in our novels and layers in the similarities between acts of violence executed by men and acts of violence executed by women.

Literary Themes

Notes on the Narrative Style of Latin American Crime Fiction

The hardest part of the novel though is the structure and how it is written. Rather than having quotation marks and paragraphs so you can determine who is speaking, the novel omits these and it reads more like a long story that is being told to you. In addition, the novel jumps around alot switching from characters to characters very similar to a film. It reminds me of Alfred Hitchcock’s approach to filmmaking, this idea of “meanwhile back at the ranch.” That is to say at the height of one character’s arc it switches back to someone else, never really allowing the reader to gain their bearings. Eventually the two arcs come together at the end of the novel but it is not until the near climax before the two become one. The third person structure also allows us insight into our protagonist head and the fear he has over his superiors and the United States.

Integration of Spanish Vocabulary

Another commonality that we noticed while reading our novels was the seamless integration of Spanish vocabulary.  Many of the books are translated from Spanish or Portuguese, but some words remain within Spanish inside of the texts.  Some of these words are words that do not have direct corresponding words in English, such as machismo.

In Sultry Moon, the names of cities within Argentina are included throughout the text. Although some could be translated into English words, like “Resistencia,” they are kept in Spanish. Others, like “La Liguria” and “El Chaco,” remain without any indication of where exactly they lie on a map or in relation to surrounding cities. Moreover, Spanish words are spread out in the narrative, like machismo are put in quotation marks. Another interesting aspect to the text is the inclusion of comments about other Spanish-speaking countries, like a discussion about Paraguayan accents.

Another example of Spanish vocabulary appearing within the English books was the inclusion of the Portuguese names of locations in Alone in the Crowd.  The narrator refers to locations in Espinosa’s world by their Brazilian names without giving context as to what they mean.  For instance, the narrator only refers to a particular set of beaches in Copacabana by their name, “Zona Sul.”  Furthermore, Espinosa typically walks down a street called “Rua Siqueira Campos” to get home; yet, the narrator never identifies it as a street, only by name.  By including these Portuguese names, Garcia-Roza brings the reader into Espinosa’s world.  The Portuguese language, similarly to drug and gang violence, serves as a backdrop for the novel.

References

Alter, Alexandra. “Fiction’s Global Crime Wave.” Wall Street Journal, 1 Jul. 2010. Accessed 11 Dec. 2016

Beauvoir, de, Jeannette. “The Armchair Detective: International Crime Fiction.” Criminal

Element, 19 May 2016. Accessed 11 Dec. 2016

Biron, Rebecca E. Murder and Masculinity: Violent Fictions of Twentieth Century Latin America. Nashville: Vanderbilt UP, 2000. 151. Print.

Boudreaux, Richard. “Crime Soaring in Cuba as Fidel Castro’s Socialist Economy Is Caught in Free Fall: Latin America: Visiting detective novelists get the picture first hand as muggers prey on them in Havana.” Los Angeles Times, 9 Nov. 1991. Accessed 14 Nov. 2016

García-Roza, L A, and Benjamin Moser. Alone in the Crowd. New York: Henry Holt and Co, 2009. Print.

Giardinelli, Mempo, and Patricia J. Duncan. Sultry Moon. Pittsburgh, PA: Latin American Literary Review Press, 1998. Print.

Latour, José. “Politics in Latin American Crime Fiction.” Jose Latour Author, 21 Dec. 2009. Accessed 14 Nov. 2016

Mendoza, Elmer, and Mark Fried. Silver Bullets. 2015. Print.

Moloney, Anastasia. “POST Data.” POST Data. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Dec. 2016

Nolan, T. “Behind the Blue Wall of Silence: Essay.” Men and Masculinities 12.2 (2009): 250-57. Web. 2 Dec. 2016.

Padura, Leonardo. Havana Red. London: Bitter Lemon Press, 2005. Print.

Piñeiro, Claudia, and Miranda France. A Crack in the Wall. London: Bitter Lemon Press, 2013. Print.

Rodriguez, Walter. “Mexico’s Catch-22: How the Necessary Extradition of Drug Cartel Leaders  Undermines Long-Term Criminal Justice Reforms.” Boston College International & Comparative Law Review (n.d.): 159-88. Web. 14 Nov. 2016.

Schonfeld, Zach. “No More Magical Realism: Juan Gabriel Vásquez and the New Latin    American Lit.” The Atlantic, 23 Aug. 2013. Accessed 13 Nov. 2016.

Crime Fiction in India and Pakistan

Introduction

Within the region of South Asia, India and Pakistan have the greatest volume of crime fiction novels written in English. An unsurprising fact considering the history of England in the countries compared with say, Bhutan or Nepal. Furthermore, both India and Pakistan are experiencing an English language crime fiction renaissance, giving us plenty of novels to work with. In reading seven crime fiction novels- three from Pakistan and four from India- a number of common themes and trends were readily apparent across the border which we will explore in this blog. Although the novels cover a range of decades and vary in content from humorous, to supernatural, to deeply unsettling, they all point to a number of cultural anxieties and trends present in both countries.

The similarities between the crime fiction in these countries likely results from their closely tied history; they were both part of the British Empire until the Partition of 1947 at which point majority Hindu India and majority Muslim Pakistan were separated. In spite of their united origin, the social divide between the countries has been tense and violent, particularly in the Punjab and Kashmir regions of India. Although none of the novels deal heavily with racism and tension between Muslims and Indian, there are still aspects of the tension found in the novels, whether in negative connotation of those from Punjab, or stereotyping of Muslims in Indian novels. However, since the novels don’t directly address the anxieties manifested between the countries, we were able to find mostly consistent themes across borders instead of stark contrasts and high tension.

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The Novels We Read:

The Menagerie by Saradindu Bandyopadhyay (India) A work of detective fiction where Byomkesh, a private investigator, looks into the mysterious depositing of motor parts on Golap Colony, the disappearance of an actress, and the deaths of colony members. The colony’s residents are former members of the upper class who had to give up their wealth and move to the colony as retribution for their crimes, giving each a tainted past.

Necropolis by Avtar Singh (India) – A novel published in 2016 that follows a Deputy Chief of Police around Delhi as he attempts to solve a number of interconnected crimes that all somehow relate to a woman who may be immortal and the leader of a self-fashioned team vampires who cuts off the fingers of random victims. It’s not a scary, thrilling or particularly original novel, but simply a pretty typical police oriented crime tale. The novel focuses greatly on the city of New Delhi and how it’s past is both erased by and blended with its growing modernity as the edges between suburban and urban, and rich and poor shift and blur, which makes for a mysterious backdrop for a crime novel.

Riot, by Shashi Tharoor (India)- This novel revolves around the death of Priscilla Hart in a riot, as her parents and a journalist, Randy Diggs, try to figure out whether her death was intentional, due to her affair with a married man, or her volunteer work. Hart’s identity as an American woman adds a more directly postcolonial focus to the novel because it forces the direct exploration of the current relationship between the West and the postcolony.

Witness the Night, by Kishwar Desai (India) – A modern thriller, and Desai’s debut novel, follows a social worker / detective as she unravels the case of a thirteen-person murder in a small town in India. Simran, the social worker, faces the stigma of being a woman as she navigates the corrupt police force and social taboos surrounding gender. Durga, the prime suspect and daughter of the dead wealthy family, maintains her innocence, even at the threat of force commitment to a mental asylum by the family’s caretaker. A remarkable book about gender influence, the wealth gap in India, and police corruption.

The Case of Exploding Mangoes, by Mohammed Hanif (Pakistan) – A comedy crime novel exploring the conspiracies surrounding the death of General Zia-ul Haq, the dictator of Pakistan, in a mysterious plane crash on August 17, 1988. Ali Shigri is the novel’s main narrator, who is a junior trainee officer in the Pakistani Air Force. Throughout the novel, he seeks revenge on General Zia for, what he believes to be, the staged suicide of his father, who once served the General. Along with Shigri, multiple individuals are revealed who hope to assassinate General Zia, which reinforces the extreme hatred his country felt for him during his rule. This book explores the issues of police/government corruption, the use of religion, and conspiracy theories all through a humorous dialogue and narration.  

The House of Fear by Ibn-e-safi (Pakistan) – The House of Fear, written in 1953, is one of the first books in a 100+ Urdu book series written by Pakistani author Ibn-e- Safi. In it, dead bodies have been found in an abandoned house, each bearing three identical dagger marks, exactly five inches apart and Detective Imran’s help is enlisted by Captain Fayaaz of the Secret Service. Although Imran comes across at all times as a fool and a madman who spouts nonsense about Urdu poetry and folklore, he is actually a genius when it comes to solving crimes and is the commander of the entire Secret Service, a fact unknown to virtually everyone, including most of the secret agents. The book is meant to be a blend of mystery, adventure, and humor, but the humor was lacking or simply didn’t translate well.

The Prisoner by Omar Shahid Hamid (Pakistan) – The Prisoner, taking place in Karachi, follows Constantine, a Christian police officer, in his attempt to recover a kidnapped American journalist before his public execution on Christmas Day and before the scheduled arrival of the U.S president in Pakistan. Written by a former member of the Karachi police where he had served for some time as head of counterterrorism, the novel delves into the particularities of police corruption, class, and fate.

Themes:

Police Corruption

The theme of police corruption ran through a number of the crime fiction novels, whether it was a major component of the text, extended as far as one minor corrupt character, or was not present at all. The range of representation of police corruption in these novels centered on crime is significant as both Pakistan and India cope with police corruption. In The Prisoner, police corruption is an extremely prevalent theme throughout. With this, however, is the idea that this corruption is exacerbated by a system in which not taking part results in missed opportunities, less income, and less connections. A quote from the novel which represents this well occurs when Constantine discusses why he has taken part in corrupt activities rampant in the police force: “but I do it because I want to survive in this world, I want to try and give my children a better life than I had, and I cannot do that if I do not become a part of this system” (Hamid 115). If police officers want to succeed and a carve out a future for their families, then the benefits of corruption is often the only way. Throughout the story, though, it becomes clear that not all police officers are the same type of corrupt. There is very much a gradient where those who impede justice due to personal goals are seen much more negatively than the average corrupt police officer who may even use corruption as a source of serving justice i.e jailing a criminal with the funds to buy their way off the radar and out of court. Other novels demonstrated this gradient as well, as in Necropolis where one corrupt officer is an assassin for hire, while others simply won’t work to solve crimes perpetrated on Muslims or foreigners. These novels demonstrate that police corruption is not one size fits all but can come in many forms within the force. 

 

Class

While class plays an important role in these novels it is not represented as fixed or permanent. This is likely a result of the fairly modern setting of the novels, because in the last century it has become far easier to move from one class to another across the globe. However, in part due to the long history of the Caste system in India, one’s past social class cannot be fully erased, therefore there is no totally free movement. In Necropolis, for example, a great distinction is made between old money and new, which is a very universal line to draw. The new money families, who within the novel’s context gain their wealth illicitly, are ostentatious and over the top. The men buy palatial, absurdly decorated homes while the women wear tight designer clothes and lots of jewelry and makeup. Whereas the old money families possess “effortless taste” and furnishings “with a backstory,” which means that no matter how high new money people reach, they will never be on the same plane as old money because their past limits them. In The Menagerie the inverse essentially occurs when the residents of the colony are forced to give up their wealth and move away from their history and start over. However, they cannot fully start over because they are bound to the colony by their past actions, even without the threat of crime.

Class plays a somewhat different, but equally significant role in The Prisoner, set in Pakistan. Those with wealth are not distinguished between old and new money. Rather, the wealthy as an entity, whether criminal or not, are all seen as something to aspire to. The wealthy holds the power to influence the inner workings of the justice system. An example of this is when Constantine locates the ‘untrackable’ Tension, a dangerous criminal. It is soon discovered, however, that the only reason the police have been unable to bring him in, is because of the obnoxiously large stash of cash he uses to bribe them. Thus, it is the notion of class that helps perpetuate corruption within the police force: “The thing within our society, sir, is that if you are not a rich or powerful person… you need to have access to power just to survive” (Hamid 114). This mentality is what provokes Maqsood among other police officers to pander to the wealthy in order to maintain connections and move closer to obtaining that power.

Sexism

Sexism and taboos that limited female action and power was a common theme in our novels. This patriarchal influence is part of longstanding Indian and Pakistani traditions. Subverting femininity was an especially common part of social life and the inner workings of culture. In Witness the Night, the main character continuously confronts the ridiculous standards imposed on women in India. For instance, foeticide is such a big problem in the novel because wives are pushed to have sons and reject daughters. Sons had a more positive impact on the family’s wealth and social status, while daughters were considered a burden. The only value of a daughter was the husband they were ultimately paired with. When the main character confronts police officials, they make remarks about women’s place in society, how they should not be working or that her job should be left to men.

Sexism pervades Necropolis in a similar, but far less horrifying and more quotidien way. Women are boxed into stereotypical roles: whores (literal prostitutes who are morally judged for their profession); rich, bedazzled housewives; naggy old women; dumb, blonde foreigners and so forth. Even the female police detective is subjected to constant sexism, for example when she is left in charge of a crime scene and instructs those under her to watch the body, they respond by calling her a “bitch” (Singh 168). This is the only time that she does not defer authority to a man in the course of the text.  Significantly, although the novel deals a fair amount with sexual relations, Smita, the female officer always abstains. She and the only other female in the novel with any real power are sexless and shown almost only in relation to their work.

The sexism in the novels demonstrates that in spite of their modernity, (Witness the Night was published in 2010, and Necropolis in 2016) women are still treated as lesser than men. Additionally, they demonstrate that women’s bodies are not autonomous but can be subjected to the desires of men around them, be it through foeticide in Witness the Night or rape in Necropolis. These novels feature women in more present and active roles than a number of the other texts we read, but this clearly did not lead to more fair and equal representation.

Odd Crime

In a number of the novels, the crime being tracked isn’t just a simple murder or robbery but something more original. In Witness the Night, for example foeticide and the murder of thirteen people by both poison and stabbing are prominent crimes in the book. On the lighter end of the spectrum, the main crime in Necropolis is the cutting off of a single finger from random people. In both novels the motivation for the crimes ultimately boils down to social goals and pressures. In Witness the Night the family kills their infant daughters because boys are more  valuable to a family than girls, while in Necropolis it comes to light that not only are fingers being taken by self-fashioned vampires, but also freely given by poor citizens hoping to game some form of power through secret societies, and cutting off their fingers as payment. In a different way, the crime in The Case of Exploding Mangoes is peculiar as well, for it tracks possible explanations for the explosion of a real Pakistani dictator’s plane, with both mangoes and a crow among the suspects. It is similar to Necropolis in that both attempt to blend the absurd and the realistic in an attempt to offer some form of rational explanation to an event that could either relate to the universe, as with a crow flying into a plane or men offering their fingers to the universe in hopes of a positive outcome (which happens in reality), or to maliciousness with a bomb in a plane or criminals drugging people and claiming fingers. In both cases the narrative blending the supernatural, superstition and real struggles together through writing about these odd crimes.

Unsatisfying Resolution

A common theme among the South Asian crime fiction novels was the unsatisfactory conclusions; despite the labels of mystery or thriller for many of them, mysteries that spanned hundreds of pages were wrapped up in a single chapter or never fully resolved. Part of the issue, arguably, could be with reading the novels through a Western focused mindset in which more conclusive endings in certain types of literature are often expected, especially in crime fiction novels. When it comes to detective and mystery novels, they tend to unravel the mystery practically and through the use of progressively discovered clues and pieces of evidence. In The House of Fear, much of the evidence discovered seemed to be skipped over and summarized at a later date or was found entirely ‘off-screen,’ only to conveniently be announced to the reader as a way to help fix plot holes in the mystery.  

The lack of resolution could also stem from a rise in corruption in the postcolonial governments and police agencies that affect not only the countries themselves, but the literature. In a book where the police are the corrupt members of a society, how could there be an acceptable ending to a murder case? As an article in Images, a Pakistani media and news company, said, “Pakistani fiction in English reflects the society that breeds it – full of possibility, yes, but hindered by a system that ought to have righted itself” (Zubair).

This idea of finding justice when members of the police are corrupt individuals themselves is particularly noticeable in The Prisoner. While the ending wraps up nicely, it is unsatisfying due to the level of corruption that is cause for the tidy finale. It is largely due to the corruption of one police officer that determines the course of the novel as well as its subsequent finish, and it is this very same police officer that ultimately reaps the benefits of it. As mentioned before in the case of this novel, corruption is presented on a scale where the most morally corrupt police officers receive no penalty while the most grossly corrupt are lumped with the criminals. Through a western lens, this gradient might be difficult to comprehend and even more difficult to accept as positive in a crime fiction novel. The fact that this corruption is looked on as so positive, perhaps ties into the very nature of Pakistani novels written in English.    

Religion

Another common theme among the South Asian crime-fiction novels is the concept of religion and its impact on the plot. In fact, it is in religion that we see the greatest contrast between Indian and Pakistani novels.  Oftentimes, in Pakistan, the ideals of Islam are expressed throughout the novels as a way to guide the character’s and their decision making. Considering the strong hold religion has on Southern Asia and its culture, it is apparent why its ideals and concepts are expressed throughout the novels written in this region. Islam is prevalent in the novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif through the character of General Zia uq-Haq, dictator of Pakistan, who takes his religion so seriously that he uses passages from the Quran as a guide for his political decisions regarding the country. General Zia was known for his extreme views of Islam, and “many people in Pakistan blame [him] for the rise of extremism in their country” (Shams). Hanif takes General Zia’s religious dedication and highlights the absurdity of it by using it as the sole influence for his political choices, as “he had always consulted the [Quran] for guidance and always found the answers he was looking for” (Hanif 33). General Zia would open the Quran, and whichever passage he came across would be his guide for that day. His extreme views regarding Islam influenced General Zia’s rule (Shams).

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General Zia and President Reagan

While in Pakistani novels Islam is seen as a guiding force, in Indian novels it is seen as something to be looked down upon, particularly for its customs. Furthermore, while The Case of Exploding Mangoes religion plays a Islam  role, in Indian novels Hinduism is a far less prominent issue. In Necropolis, for example, Hinduism is mostly addressed only as a general way to categorize people, as if by regionality, or in historical context. It plays no role in the character’s actions. The bias against Muslims however, does impact their actions, and leads them to be less motivated in their pursuit of justice for a Muslim victim, while more actively pursuing a potentially Muslim assailant. As mentioned in the introduction, a major point of contention between the two countries is the difference of religion so it is unsurprising that even in novels that don’t directly address the tension, it can still be felt and seen.

Weather

Within the novels, weather was used as a tool for foreshadowing, establishing tone, and emphasizing the physical oppression of characters. In The Menagerie, any mention of fog or dark storm clouds were indicated that the investigation was about to take a complicated turn. Both allowed for secret meetings to occur undercover, murders to be committed, and spying to take place. The secrecy that these natural phenomena permitted complicated Byomkesh’s investigation into the events on Golap Colony. It also contrasted  the novel’s logical tone by shrouding bits of evidence and emphasizing elements of mystery. Rain and sunshine, in the novel were used to foreshadow the revelation of new evidence, conclusion or direction in the investigation. An example of this occurs when it is Byomkesh devises his plan to discover the murders using a photo and an envelope. In the novel, the scene opens with the sun breaking through the clouds after a rainstorm the previous night. The literal break in the clouds is a metaphor for a break in the case. Similar is true in the investigatory process illustrated in Necropolis. Fog, along with the cold provide an indication of the progress of the investigation; just when the lead detective thinks he is beginning to understand the case a fog rolls in and the lead Vampire appears from nowhere. Additionally, the crimes committed grow increasingly sinister as the weather grows colder until some level of clarity and resolution is reached in late spring.

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New Delhi Fog- Source

Additionally, in The Menagerie, Necropolis, The Prisoner, and Moth Smoke weather adds physical stress to the emotional journey of character’s narratives. The sun and heat usually are usually accompanied by a slowing of pace. They emphasize an exhaustive toll the body pays when trying to compensate for the uncomfortableness of being overheated. In some cases heat was also an indicator of a potential emotional explosion. Experiences with the cold differed such that they were either moments of comfort and relief, or frustration. In moments of comfort, the pace was casual or accelerated. Where the cold signified frustration, the pace stalled or sedated.  

Sources: 

Agrawal, Ravi. “Could India and Pakistan Go to War?” CNN. Cable News Network. 26, Sept. 2016.

— “Why India is Still Fighting Over Caste System.” CNN. Cable News Network. 28 Aug.  2015.

Akhunzada, Zia Ullah, Imran Ahmad Said, and Farhat Ullah. “Crossing the Line: Perception About Police Corruption in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan.” Pakistan Journal of Criminology. Oct. 2015. Web.

Arora, Kim. “Delhi Is a Fantastic Backdrop for Crime Novels'” The Crest Edition. N.p., 14 July  2012. Web. 

Bandyopādhyāẏa, Śaradindu, and Sreejata Guha. The Menagerie and Other Byomkesh Bakshi Mysteries. New Delhi: Penguin, 2006. Print.

Das, Srijana Mitra. “The Missing Detectives of Delhi.” India International Centre Quarterly, vol. 37, no. 1, 2010, pp. 40–51. www.jstor.org/stable/23006454.

Dalrymple, William. “The Great Divide.” The New Yorker. N.p. 21 June 2015. Web.

Desai, Kishwar. Witness the Night. New York: Penguin, 2012. Print.

Gupta, Gargi. “Spy Sagas, Serial Killers and Whodunnits The Crime Rush in Indian Literary World.” DNA India. 10 July, 2016.http://www.dnaindia.com/lifestyle/report-crime-rush-2232933

Hamid, Omar Shahid. The Prisoner: A Novel. New York: Arcade, 2015. Print.

Hanif, Mohammed. A Case of Exploding Mangoes: A Novel. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. Print.

Ibn-e-safi.  The House of Fear. Noida, UP.: Random House India, 2009. Print.

Sankaran, Lavanya. “Caste Is Not Past.” The New York Times. 15 June 2013. Web.

Sara, Sally. “Teenage Abuse Case Highlights Police Corruption in India.” Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 30 Dec. 2009. Web.

Singh, Avtar. Necropolis: A New Delhi Crime Novel. Brooklyn, NY: Akashic, 2016. Print.

Shams, Shamil. “Pakistan’s Islamization – before and after Dictator Zia-ul Haq.” DW.COM. Deutsche Welle, 17 Aug. 2016. Web. 15 Dec. 2016.

Tharoor, Shashi. Riot. New York: Arcade Pub., 2001. Print.

Zubair, Hamna. “Thrillers: How a Neglected Genre Helped Pakistani Fiction Get Its Groove

Back in 2015.” Images. N.p., 28 Dec. 2015. Web. http://images.dawn.com/news/1174529

 

Southern African Crime Fiction

Introduction

Crime fiction in Southern Africa mainly consists of the detective novel and the crime thriller, however, it can also include political thrillers, such as Red Dust by Gillian Slovo, and the lesser known historical crime novel, such as Andrew Brown’s Coldsleep Lullaby. The detective novel is the most popular subgenre among both authors and readers, however the Southern African detective novel does not follow the archetype of a James Bond or Sherlock Holmes novel. Instead of focusing on bringing one person to justice, authors, such as Roger Smith, rather put the entire nation on trial by pointing to the socio-political problems of the region. Because of this, some are calling the South African crime novel the ‘new political novel’. Scholars Sammantha Naidu and Elizabeth le Roux explain that “crime fiction interrogates every facet of society and critically engages with pertinent themes such as child abuse, political corruption, ecology, and organised crime.” In other words, Southern African detective novels are not the classic “whodunnit” novels, but instead are more like “whydunnit” novels because they focus more on the societal problems that lead so many people to commit crimes than who actually committed the crime. Lastly, since many times the murderer or criminal is not brought to justice in Southern African crime fiction, as in real life, the courtroom drama is not common in this region.

History of Crime Fiction in Southern Africa

Crime fiction in Southern Africa began with the novels of James McClure in the late 1960s. McClure wrote about crime in South Africa through his detective series, Kramer and Zondi. By writing about crime during the Apartheid-era, he began the tradition of commenting on the current sociopolitical state of the region through crime fiction . Wessel Ebersohn was also instrumental in giving crime fiction its start in the region, specifically in South Africa. Complementary to McClure, Ebersohn wrote psychological thrillers which commented on the evil of people and pointed to the “reality of the security police” during the apartheid era. In the post-Apartheid era, Deon Meyer has become the central author of crime fiction novels in South Africa. Similar to McClure and other contemporary crime fiction authors, Meyer’s novels aim to paint a picture of what life is like in South Africa, specifically within the context of crime.

Topics of interest for authors have moved from political issues during the Apartheid era, to serial killers during the transition period to a non-Apartheid state, back to social and political concerns in the post-Apartheid era. Contemporary crime fiction writers are now interested in making the criminal a politician, popular business man, or some other type of public authority figure. Furthermore, instead of solely focusing on serial killings, crimes can now be anything from ritualistic murders to political corruption or international crime, such as drug trade.

Lastly, most of the crime fiction that has come out of Southern Africa has been concentrated in South Africa as authors in neighboring countries have just begun to produce detective or crime novels. For instance, Pepetela, the author of Jaime Bunda Secret Agent, is the only writer in Angola that has ventured into the genre of crime fiction. However, authors such as Unity Dow from Botswana and Alexander McCall Smith from Zimbabwe have been central to the expanding number of crime novels coming out of the region.

Synopsis of Select Novels

The following are brief summaries of a select number of crime fiction novels from Southern Africa.

Angola

Jaime Bunda Secret Agent by Pepetela (2006) – This novel is a satire about a detective named Jaime Bunda solving his very first case. He starts out trying to solve a murder but ends up in the middle of a much larger international criminal network. Through the use of satire, Pepetela pokes fun at both popular detective stories, such as James Bond and Sherlock Holmes, as well as the social problems plaguing Angola, such as government and police corruption and lack of government infrastructures.

Botswana

The Screaming of the Innocent by Unity Dow (2007) – takes place in a small village in Botswana. It is a story about a box of bloodied clothes that reappear five years after a young girl goes missing. This discovery prompts the village to investigate members of their village, the police and the government as a whole as it comes to light that the girl was killed for a ritual murder. Spirituality and corruption are the center themes of the novel, but it also speaks about silence, advocacy and community.

South Africa

Coldsleep Lullaby by Andrew Brown (2005) – Takes place in Stellenbosch, South Africa. One plotline takes place in the modern day, following a mentally unstable coloured detective as he investigates the murder of the daughter of a prominent   white citizen in the community. The other plotline takes place three hundred years ago, and follows how the community was founded by Dutch settlers who used slave labor. Themes include corruption, duty/obligation, race/class in South Africa, and Afrikaan culture.

Red Dust by Gillian Slovo (2000) – Red Dust, published just six short years after the fall of Apartheid, is a political thriller centering around a hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a governmental commission set up to grant amnesty to politically-motivated criminals if they were willing to confess to, and disclose details of, their crimes. Set in the fictional town of Smitsriver, the novel traces the efforts of prosecutor Sarah Barcant, and her mentor Ben Hoffman, as they attempt to uncover the truth of what happened to Steve Sizela, a local ANC activist who went missing a decade earlier. The book examines the questions central to the heart of the TRC, namely, what is truth, and is true reconciliation possible?

Wake Up Dead by Roger Smith (2010) – Wake Up Dead Is an unconventional thriller set in Cape Town. The wife of a corrupt man shoots her husband and blames it on two criminals. This sets off a series of violent crimes that interweave multiple characters together. Each character is mixed up in some sort of criminal activity and all their crimes come to fruition in a bloody climax at the end. Racial tension is shown throughout the novel, as well as, corruption within the police force and prison systems.

General Themes

Corruption

One major theme found throughout Southern African crime novels is corruption, specifically within the police force and the government. Anneke Rautenbach explains that contemporary authors, such as Deon Meyer and Roger Smith have “begun to add their voices to political commentary, writing about a nation in flux, widespread corruption within the political and business sectors amidst rampant decentralisation and deregulation, and the struggle of a new nation for normative control with the inherited infrastructure of an immoral regime”. In other words, in addition to the focus on rampant corruption in the countries, authors also illustrate the consequences of this corruption, such as lacking infrastructure. Rautenbach also alludes to the point that often times this corruption in both reality and in crime novels stems from long periods of instability in the country. Additionally, because many of the government infrastructures are not in place, the characters in the novels have to take matters into their own hands.

Wake Up Dead is just one example of how corruption combs its way through Southern African crime fiction. In Wake Up Dead, corruption can be seen within the author’s vivid description of a flawed criminal justice system. Also he depicts a vivid critique of the conditions of the prisons. Corruption is shown multiple time within the police force. Cops involved are either being paid off or planting evidence in the pursuit of fame. Justice is never really given to any of the characters. The possible moments of justice is committed by citizens and almost always the law is broken in the process.

Pepetela’s satire, Jaime Bunda Secret Agent, is another example of how corruption takes center stage in crime fiction from this region. At the end of the novel Jaime Bunda finds out that a top official in the government’s secret police task force is involved in an international trade of counterfeit currency and is friends with a known criminal who has been deported from Angola and is now in the country illegally. Furthermore, the person who rapes and murders a girl at the beginning of the novel turns out to be the son of a government official, and because of this he is not likely to actually have to go to jail or stand trial for his crime. Lastly, Pepetela implies that there is a lack of government infrastructure because at the beginning of the novel Jaime does not have his own gun or car to be able to solve his first case.

Corruption is also seen in Coldsleep Lullaby. In this book, it is tied into race. In the book, a white professor goes into the jail where the black immigrant suspect is being held for murdering his daughter. He murders the suspect even though there is no evidence yet that he committed the murder. The professor, who is a very powerful person in the community, easily makes bail, and claims that the suspect attacked him from the jail cell and he looks to be found not guilty at his trial. Racism against black South Africans seems to be a motive for why he was so quick to go after the suspect.

Racial/Cultural Differences in South Africa

Because of the context of the Apartheid, race and cultural difference tends to weave its way through South African crime fiction. Many times racial differences are brought up in the context of how to move on from the Apartheid era. As Leon de Kock points out, J.M. Coetze’s novel, Disgrace, demonstrates how both white and black South Africans question how to get along in the post-Apartheid era. Though Disgrace is not considered a genre novel, it is a great example of how racial differences and crime coincide in present day South Africa. De Kock further elaborates that the question of how to dissolve racial and cultural differences leads to ambiguity on what is wrong and what is right, and furthermore, what is legal and illegal. Thus, the blurred racial and cultural differences actually lead to more crime in both reality and in South African crime fiction.

For example, questions of race and cultural harmony are central to Red Dust. As a novel that deals with the fallout of Apartheid, it questions the ability of a people to come together and heal from institutions as bitter and contentious as Apartheid. Racial animus is still prevalent in the South Africa of Red Dust, and the trial opens old wounds as it interrogates the white police officer accused of killing a black activist.

Race and culture play a big role in Coldsleep Lullaby. The girl who is murdered is white, and is the daughter of a professor who is a powerful figure in the community. He is head of a committee that tries to preserve Afrikaan culture in the community, which is basically white African culture who are descended from the Dutch. At the beginning of the novel, a black police officer tells her partner that she is not offended by the professor, and does not consider it racist of him to try to preserve his culture. However, as the novel goes on, we see how the professor’s racism against black South Africans and immigrants unveils itself, and plays a big role in the events of the novel. In the other plotline, that takes place in the same town three hundred years ago, we see how race and culture played a big role in the foundation of the town as Dutch settlers founded the community using African slave labor. We see that the professor is actually descended from a black slave and a white slave master.

Lack of Religion

As Karen Ferreria-Meyers discusses in her article “Crime doesn’t pray in local fiction”, religion does not play a central role in Southern African crime fiction. The lack of religion in these novels is mainly because, as Ferreira-Meyers puts it, “the author emphasises the ineffectiveness of due process and the search for moral justice”. This connects back to the idea of corruption in Southern African crime fiction and the concept behind the TRC, which is brought up in Red Dust. Thus, because authors are so focused on illustrating the corruption in the country, there is no room for religion. For example, in Jaime Bunda Secret Agent, there are only references to religion, such as one of the characters being Muslim or Jaime’s family going to church on Sunday. However, as Ferreria-Meyers points out in her novel, some crime novels do include ritualistic killings or the concept of ritualistic power, such as in Roger Smith’s Wake Up Dead, or in Unity Dow’s novel, The Screaming of the Innocent.

In Wake Up Dead, the character Doc, an ex-doctor turned arms dealer shows us an example of religion in modern day Cape Town. He was disbarred from the hospital for selling body parts on the side. There is one chapter we get from Doc’s point of view he explains the value of these body parts for people who believe in ritualistic power. He explains in detail the preparation of a severed limb. He also speaks to the fact that some of these rituals are not sinister just simply for good luck or wealth. A portion of the earnings he gives to the cops to keep them happy. This is another part where corruption can be seen within the police force.

In The Screaming of the Innocent, a young girl is killed as a ritual murder, which involves killing a young pre-pubescent girl in order to receive good luck in your business. Furthermore, religion plays a part in the novel because the young girl was conceived from rape when her mother visits a spiritual healer about her marriage. Instead, the man rapes her. Finally, there is an example of religious spirituality when there is a mentally disabled man in the village, and the village ties him up in a religious ceremony to free him from his disability. The village was dismayed when the next day the villager was the same, and there was no cure.

Writing Style

Narration

Southern African crime fiction authors, such as Pepetela and Brown, often use different narrators in their novels. In Jaime Bunda Secret Agent, Pepetela chooses to use four different narrators. Not only does he switch from one narration style to the next, he actually distances himself from the narrators by critiquing them. For example, after the first narrator, the author steps in and comments, “Okay, this narrator is as monotonous as a quisssonde army passing by…By the absolute power I possess, I hereby fire this narrator once and for all.” While the way in which Pepetela plays with narration adds to the satirical nature of the book, the different narrators allow the reader to understand more fully what is going in on the investigation. Furthermore crime fiction authors often choose to focus on the narration of their stories in order to add an extra element to the novel for the reader, such as in Coldsleep Lullaby.

Coldsleep Lullaby has two interweaving plotlines going. One takes place in the modern day, and is written like a whodunnit detective story where a police officer must navigate various twists and turns to solve a murder. The other plotline, taking place three hundred years earlier, provides context to the foundation of the community where the modern murder takes place. This helps add another layer to the significance of the case the detective tries to solve. It is not until the end of the novel that we see how these two plotlines relate more directly.

Graphic Descriptions of Violence

Many crime fiction authors from Southern Africa use graphic descriptions when writing about crimes that take place in their novels. For example, in Wake Up Dead, there was plenty of horrific deeds being committed in every chapter. The author not only writes about these events he writes in an extremely graphic style using very descriptive words. As a reader I questioned if the author used these graphic situations only for the sake of the shock value it produces from the reader. Further research revealed that the author had spent time with gangs and tried to stay as true as he could to the reality of these horrific prevalent crimes.

The Screaming of the Innocent had a particularly graphic description when a villager who was forced to be a part of the ritualistic murder describes the murder to the advocates and lawyers before committing suicide. During the recount, the villager speaks about how the men cut up the girl piece by piece (while she was still alive), while the girl was begging him to help her. This use of graphic imagery is used to finally give the reader the true account of what happened to the girl after reading for so long mixed messages from the corrupt government. Dow portrays this graphic scene because it is a way into the truth from years of silence.

References

Brown, Andrew. Coldsleep Lullaby. Zebra Press, 2005.

Coetze, J.M. Disgrace. Penguin Books, 2005.

De Kock, Leon. “From the Subject of Evil to the Evil Subject: “Cultural Difference” in Postapartheid South African Crime Fiction.” Safundi, vol. 16, no. 1, 2014, pp. 28-50, doi: 10.1080/17533171.2014.950483. Accessed 7 Nov. 2016

Dow, Unity. The Screaming of the Innocent. Spinifex Press, 2002.

Ferreria-Meyers, Karen. “Crime doesn’t pray in local fiction.” Mail & Guardian, 7 Apr. 2010. http://mg.co.za/article/2010-04-07-crime-doesnt-pray-in-local-fiction. Accessed 7 Nov. 2016.

Naidu, Sam. “Fears and Desires in South African Crime Fiction.” Journal of Southern African

Studies, vol. 39, no. 3, 2013, pp. 727-738, doi: 10.1080/03057070.2013.826070. Accessed 7 Nov. 2016.

Naidu, Samantha and Elizabeth le Reux. “South African crime fiction: sleuthing the State Post-1994.” African Identities, vol. 12, no. 3-4, 2015, pp. 283-294, doi: 10.1080/14725843.2015.1009621. Accessed 7 Nov. 2016.

Nicol, Mike. “A short history of South African crime fiction.” Crime Beat, 2015.

http://crimebeat.bookslive.co.za/a-short-history-of-south-african-crime-fiction/. Accessed 7 Nov. 2016.

Pepetela. Jaime Bunda Secret Agent. Aflame Books, 2006.

Rautenbach, Anneke. “Crime fiction in South Africa: the history, the hype, and the “genre snob” debate.” litnet, 2 Apr. 2013. http://www.litnet.co.za/crime-fiction-in-south-africa-the-history-the-hype-and-the-genre-snob-debate/. Accessed 7 Nov. 2016.

Slovo, Gillian. Red Dust. W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.

Smith, Roger. Wake Up Dead. Henry Holt & Co., 2010.

Stanley, Michael. “Southern African Crime Fiction on the World Stage.” Criminal Element, 8 Jan. http://www.criminalelement.com/blogs/2015/01/southern-african-crime-fiction-on-the-world-stage-deadly-harvest-michael-stanley. Accessed 7 Nov. 2016.

West African Crime Fiction

Introduction

This article discusses the commonalities between seven crime fiction novels from Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon, and Liberia.

Genre fiction, according to Steven Petite of The Huffington Post, is for escaping reality and discovering a new world, while literary fiction “provides a means to better understand the world and delivers real emotional responses” (Petite). This is the difference between Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and The Great Gatsby. Another difference is that genre fiction is not high-brow literature; it is for the masses. Crime fiction itself is a subset of genre fiction, and can then be split into at least nine sub-genres, five of which will be explored in this article.

Even though West Africa is home to many different languages, all our novels come from anglophone West Africa. The history of West African fiction written in English starts with Love in Ebony: A West African Romance in 1932 and continues through this day. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is probably the most recognizable West African novel and it is written in English (Gunner). With all of our books being from anglophone West Africa, it has given our analysis more coherence, since we are comparing different sub-genres of crime fiction from different countries.

Books

  • Lords of the Creek by Tony Nwaka (Nigerian socio-political thriller)
  • Tail of the Blue Bird by Nii Ayikwei Parkes

     (Ghanian detective-forensic mystery)

  • Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartey (Ghanian murder mystery)

  • The Clothes of Nakedness by Benjamin Kwakye (Ghanian slow violence mystery)

  • The Lazarus Effect by Hawa Jande Golakai (Liberian detective novel)

  • Bound to Secrecy by Vamba Sherif (Liberian detective novel)

  • The Akroma File by Linus Asong (Cameroonian thriller)

Corruption

One of the central elements of West African crime fiction is corruption. Corruption occurs on many levels, notably among local officials and the police. In the novel Lords of the Creek the police force is heavily corrupt, reflecting the larger scale corruption pervasive in Nigeria. Corruption in Nigeria is one of the most recognizable example of corruption in post-colonial states, and Nigeria has gained a negative reputation on the world stage. In a research study entitled “Police corruption and the national security challenge in Nigeria: a study of Rivers State Police Command” was conducted by Ngboawaji Daniel Nte and explored the overarching effects of corruption in Nigeria and suggested possible solutions. Nte concludes that the corruption in Nigeria undermines its national security. He diagnoses the corruption of the police force as resulting from a lack of funding, organization, and equipment.

The police are not provided with the necessary tools to meet the demands of the people, and more often than not become criminals themselves. This issue of police corruption can be seen throughout many of the other novels in the genre of West African crime fiction. Wife of the Gods provides the Ghanaian perspective and features corrupt local police arresting people out of convenience, rather than to catch the responsible party. In addition, the Ghanian novel Tail of the Bluebird the Inspector is offered a better job if he makes the case more prolific and the police make false arrests to speed up the investigation of the case. They use threats and bribery to get what they want. And in the Cameroonian thriller, The Akroma File, many officials both in the government and private sector are bribed to supply false documents and other illegal information for the protagonist.  The theme of corruption is also seen in the Liberian novel The Lazarus Effect when characters are arrested without being charged, assaulted while in police custody, and characters bribe their way to the top of an organ transplant list. ­­In all of the novels, corruption is a symptom of a larger problem and is taken advantage of by characters in the books.

Police

The general view on police is negative in West African crime fiction. The police are displayed as a symbol of corruption and abuse of power, and are more incompetent than the main characters, who range from journalists and reporters to detectives and forensic specialists. Their main goal is to advance within the system, and their tenacity in solving crimes revolves around what is in it for them.

Cameroonian and Nigerian genre fiction portray police as inept and lazy. In The Akroma File, one detective is capable and intelligent among the mass that is easy to take advantage of and selfishly focused on their own interests.

In The Lazarus Effect, a Liberian detective novel, police are seen as negligent and incompetent compared to the reporters, but aren’t overtly evil. Bound to Secrecy, another Liberian detective novel, paints police as a localized symbol of distant and corrupt power. Their domination over society and negligence towards ancient cultures is what builds tension in the novel. Police power is most always guided by vengeance and upward-seeking mobility.

Ghanaian novels Wife of the Gods and Tail of the Blue Bird portray police as violent, corrupt and strictly out for their own interests. The main character in Wife of the Gods is a policeman who differs from the normal caste of police. He approaches investigations in a cynical but justice-seeking way — he’s more focused on catching the right criminal than just solving the crime. This differs from the portrayal of the police in West African genre fiction because most times they will mold cases and evidence to fit into their preconceived idea of the crime. In Tail of the Blue Bird, the main character (a forensic pathologist) was sent to a village to solve an unsolvable case. The police forced him to investigate the case, and they wanted it solved “CSI-style” with international implications. The police’s imposition of power onto the village failed. The villagers did not recognize the power of the police because they have never directly experienced their brutality, as author Nii Ayikwei Parkes explains. That shows that respect for the police comes from fear.  The children in the village danced around their cars and sang songs, and most characters disregarded the “importance” of the police’s arrival.

Justice

Each novel approached justice in a unique way, often critiquing where government institutions fail to enact justice, leaving citizens to find it on their own. Some West African countries such as Ghana have a long history of native law and justice, which has survived despite English colonial attempts to replace them with a Westernized justice system.

However, much of the justice within West African Crime fiction is dealt with outside any formal or informal court of law, often taking on an eye-for-an-eye approach. In The Lazarus EffectLords of the Creek, and Wife of the Gods, the perpetrator of the chosen crime is captured, but only in The Lazarus Effect is that the end to the story. In Lords of the Creek and Wife of the Gods, the simple “we nabbed the bad guy” conclusion is forgone in favor of pointing to the continued existence of corrupt politicians, violent gangs, and spiritual leaders who abuse their power.

Both Tail of the Blue Bird and Wife of the Gods exhibit brutal retributive justice, which appears to be the favored way of dealing with the most detestable characters. The “fetish priest” in Wife of the Gods, who was seen as a village leader, was castrated by one of his wives after he tried to rape his daughter. Because he was feared by the villagers and police alike, the priest would not have been arrested, so his wife felt enacted a punishment that fit the crime.

In Tail of the Blue Bird, a man who beat his daughter, causing her consecutive miscarriages, died by aging backwards until he was just a pile of flesh. After his death, his daughter’s children returned to her from the woods, grown. Although Tail of the Blue Bird was the only novel to draw its justice from pure mysticism, mysticism and religion played an important role in many of the novels.

Mysticism and Religion

Religions form the core of the societies of West African genre fiction, where the discovered world illuminates the local understanding of society. The Poro secret society is central to Bound to Secrecy and The Lazarus Effect because the Kpelle ethnic group is dominant in Liberia. “Kpelle life can have a highly fused character. Religion, political organization, agriculture and medicine are all combined into one largely undifferentiated life concept,” largely dominated, propagated and protected by the Poro (Fulton 1219). Religion creates the bonds of secrecy by giving the people their own governmental structure, a target for a distant government that deepens the local-national divide with shows of force, and religious fear as “death awaits one who reveals the secrets” (Fulton 1222). Death follows those who help William, who symbolically first appears claiming to be a repairman in Bound to Secrecy, and the government burns the town down when they can’t penetrate the society’s presence subtly. In The Akroma Files, the Christian Reverend meets similar opposition. Religious zeal through fear of divine retribution also creates the core challenge of the people and police in Wife of the Gods. Police don’t want to challenge the priests because they fear the wrath of the gods and Trokosi continue to demand girls as penitence from repentant villagers.

Use of Narrator

In West African crime novels, the narrator is seldom the perpetrator. In the texts The Lazarus Effect, Lords of the Creek, Wife of the Gods, and Tail of the Blue Bird, the narrator of the novels is the crime solver of the story, wehther this a detective, a reporter, or someone else who has taken it upon themselves to solve the crime in question. This narration style is used by many genre fiction authors in West Africa because it puts the reader directly into the shoes of the crime solver, making it easier to empathize with the crime solver, or the “good guy.” Notably, however, this good guy is rarely a member of law enforcement. Additionally, most West African genre crime novels utilize the third person while switching between multiple perspectives to give the reader a broader sense of the plot.  

Coherence to American Audiences

Though all of these books were written in English, the average American reader would be missing important background information in most of them. In contrast to African novels written for global audiences, many of these novels assume readers have working knowledge of West Africa’s history as well as its current political and economic issues, so readers without this background will understand the context better after additional research.

For example, in Lords of the Creek, no history is given for Nigeria’s oil crisis, though this is the basis for the plot of the novel. The Akroma File contains some background on Ghana and Cameroon, but to most American readers, more context is necessary to understand the animosity between the characters. The Lazarus Effect’s main character has flashbacks to the violence she experienced as a child, but she is not explicitly named a refugee of first Liberian civil war in the text, so a reader unfamiliar with Liberia’s recent history might not understand the character’s background without looking elsewhere. Similarly, The Lazarus Effect and Tail of the Blue Bird both use West African Pidgin English throughout the novels without providing English translations, implying that they were intended primarily for a readership familiar with this language. The fact that American readers may not easily understand the context of these novels is not a drawback; it simply speaks to a difference in intended audience and gives other readers an opportunity to broaden their knowledge independently.

Works Cited

Advocates for Human Rights. “Chapter Seven: Liberia’s First Civil War 1989-1997.” A House Rooms, DRI Press, 2009, pp. 127-180, http://www.theadvocatesforhumanrights.org/uploads/chapter_7-liberia_s_first_civil_war_1989-1997.pdf.

Appiaheneâ-€Gyamfi, Joseph. “Crime and Punishment in the Republic of Ghana: A Country Profile.” International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice, Vol. 33, No. 2, 2009, pp. 309-24,  http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/01924036.2009.9678810?needAccess=true.

Fulton, Richard M. “The Political Structures and Functions of Poro Within Kpelle Society.” American Anthropologist, vol. 74, issue 5, 2009, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1525/aa.1972.74.5.02a00140/pdf.

Gale, Thomson. “Fiction: African Fiction and Religion.” Encyclopedia.com, http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/fiction-african-fiction-and-religion.

Goodman, Amy and Sandy Cioffi. “As Hundreds Die in an Oil Pipeline Explosion in Lagos, a Look at the Fight over Nigeria’s Natural Resources.” Democracy Now, 26 Dec. 2006, http://www.democracynow.org/2006/12/26/as_hundreds_die_in_an_oil.

Gunner, Elizabeth Anne Wynne and Harold Scheub. “African Literature: Literatures in European and European-derived Languages.” Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/art/African-literature/Literatures-in-European-and-European-derived-languages#toc57047.

Ngboawaji, Daniel Nte. “Police corruption and the national security challenge in Nigeria: a study Rivers State Police Command.” Journal of Human Sciences, Vol. 8,  No. 1, 2011, https://www.j-humansciences.com/ojs/index.php/IJHS/article/view/1430.

“Nii Ayikewi Parkes talks to Bola Mosuro on BBC Network Africa.” Uploaded by BBC Africa, 11 Jun. 2009, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3V4-EE_6M2Q.

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Patterson, Amanda. “Nine Examples of Sub-Genres in Crime Fiction.” Writers Write. N.p., 02  Nov. 2013. Web. 7 Nov. 2016. http://writerswrite.co.za/nine-examples-of-sub-genres-in-crime-fiction

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