Friday, August 22, 2014

Review of The Steam Pig by James McClure (1971, Soho Press)

Except for the incompetence of a local undertaker, Teresa Le Roux’s murder by a bicycle spoke thrust into her heart through her armpit would have never been discovered.  It’s a favoured method of execution amongst Bantu gangs and it’s exceptional for it to be used on a white woman.  Lieutenant ‘Tromp’ Kramer of Trekkersburg, a small town to the north of Durban, is called to the undertakers, which doubles as a morgue.  He promptly sets up an investigation, calling on the services of Sergeant Mickey Zondi, a Bantu officer in a strictly apartheid police force.  Kramer and Zondi form a formidable partnership, with a healthy mix of friendship and respect, but nevertheless perform their boss and kaffir roles.  It appears that Le Roux was a young, mousy music teacher who led a quiet, reclusive life.  But the lack of a past and a few oddities in her clothing raise Kramer’s suspicions further.  As Kramer and Zondi slowly discover information about Le Roux, and try to discover why a Bantu gang might want her dead, they come to hear of the steam pig, a figure so feared that no-one will talk about him.

Published in 1971 and winner of the CWA Gold Dagger, The Steam Pig is a police procedural set in South Africa.  The book is noted for its depiction of apartheid in South Africa in three respects.  First, its matter of fact depiction of how apartheid was expressed on a daily basis and how it structured social relations and led to distinct geographies.  Second, the complex relationship between Afrikaans ‘Tromp’ Kramer and his Bantu Sergeant Mickey Zondi, which is infused with asymmetrical power relations but also friendship and respect.  Third, its complex plot that mixes polite white society with Bantu gangs, Indian shopkeepers, and colored families.  Indeed, McClure doesn’t pull any punches in a book that interestingly can be read in different ways -- as an anti-apartheid tale and as an affirmation of the status quo (hence its popularity in South Africa).  The result is an absorbing book with respect to the setting, politics and social relations, and the case that Kramer and Zondi are trying to solve.  A big plus in its telling is the somewhat ambiguous relationship between  Kramer and Zondi and their interaction.  That said, due to the focus on the plot, neither character is that well developed and their back stories are barely explored.  Moreover, the story stuttered at certain points and the end of the tale seemed overly rushed and little over-dramatic and it would have benefitted from an epilogue or a little more explication as to the fallout.  Overall, a fascinating and entertaining tale of South Africa in the early 1970s.


Anonymous said...

It certainly sounds well worth a read. Thanks, Rob.

Anonymous-9 said...

Hi Rob! I've been in love with South Africa since visiting right after apartheid fell. I think a book set in 1970s SA sounds intriguing. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.