So Dance in the Light of the Land That They Call Cape Town*

cape-town-photoFor a lot of people, Cape Town has a sort of exotic mystique about it. Possibly because it’s been an important port for hundreds of years, it’s been influenced by many cultures, food traditions, language backgrounds and so on. As you’ll no doubt know, Cape Town has been the home of indigenous African people; Dutch, French and English settlers; Afrikaners; and people from India and other parts of Asia.

The Cape region of South Africa is visually beautiful, too, and there’s a lot to love about it. There’s good food, world class wine (trust me), fine music, rugby and more. And when I was there, I met plenty of courteous, helpful people from all sorts of different ethnic groups. But that doesn’t mean it’s a idyllic place. Cape Town has a high population, a great deal of diversity, and socioeconomic divisions. Like the rest of South Africa, it’s also facing the challenge of forming a new kind of post-apartheid society. All of these factors, plus the challenges that all modern countries face, can make for tension and conflict. So it’s no surprise at all that there’s plenty of crime fiction set there.

Agatha Christie mentions Cape Town in a few of her stories. In one of them, The Man in the Brown Suit, we meet Anne Bedingfield. She’s recently lost her father and is now alone in the world as the saying goes. She’s got very little money, but a strong sense of adventure. One day, she happens to be in an underground station when she witnesses a man fall to his death from the train platform. In the chaos that follows the recovery of the dead man’s body, Anne happens to get hold of a piece of paper the man had. When she first reads it, it doesn’t make much sense to her but it’s not long before she deduces that it refers to an upcoming sailing of the Kilmorden Castle for Cape Town. With nothing much to keep her in London, Anne buys passage on the ship and soon gets involved in a web of intrigue, jewel theft, and fraud. Cape Town may not be exactly a peaceful place, but for Anne, there’s as much excitement as there is real danger.

While Malla Nunn’s Emmanuel Cooper series isn’t really set in Cape Town, it gives a solid sense of life in South Africa during the first decades of apartheid. It was a time when every aspect of life (professional, personal, spiritual, medical, etc…) was segregated by ethnic group, and when the non-White majority population were disenfranchised. Apartheid as an institution ended twenty years ago. Still, South Africa is coming to terms with what those policies really meant, what removing them means for a new society, and how to move on. We see that uncertainty in several crime fiction novels and series.

One of them is Roger Smith’s Dust Devils. In that novel, journalist Robert Dell, his wife Rosie and their two children are taking a drive one afternoon when their car is ambushed and goes over an embankment. Dell survives, but the other members of his family are killed. It’s not long before the police go after Dell, accusing him of murdering his wife and children. He claims he’s innocent, but it’s soon clear that someone has set him up. Before he knows it, he’s been imprisoned. He has an unlikely rescuer in the form of his estranged father Bobby Goodbread. Goodbread and his son fell out over, among other things, their different views about apartheid. Goodbread was pro-apartheid and fought against the government’s dismantling of those policies. Dell on the other hand feels quite differently. In fact, one of the major sources of contention between the two men is that Rosie was non-White. Despite their differences, the two men have one thing in common. Each wants to go after the man who ambushed Dell’s car: Inja Mazibuko. He’s a native of Zulluland who’s on his way there to get married. As Goodbread and Dell go in search of Mazibuko, we get a look at some of the difficult issues that South Africa is facing as the country works towards a new social order.

Like most of South Africa, Cape Town and the Cape region are home to hundreds of species of rare animals and plants. Protecting that ecosystem means that South Africa has to balance the needs of those species with the realities of economics, valuable tourism and the demand for development. It’s not an easy balance to achieve and it’s taken up in, among other books, Deon Meyer’s Blood Safari. Jacobus le Roux was an avid conservationist who worked on a project at Kruger National Park. When he disappeared twenty-five years earlier, everyone assumed he’d been killed in a skirmish with poachers. But one day, his sister Emma sees a television show about a wanted man named Cobie de Villiers – a man who looks exactly like her brother. Could the two men be the same person? If so, why hasn’t Jacobus ever contacted her? Emma wants answers, so she hires Cape Town professional bodyguard Martin Lemmer to accompany her to the Lowveld and find out the truth. It turns out that the real truth about Jacobus le Roux is tied up in greed, corruption and ugly environmental and sociopolitical realities. Throughout the novel, one of the topics of debate is how South Africa should preserve the ecosystem, and whether that can be done without sacrificing the economy.

And then there’s Margie Orford’s Gallows Hill, the fourth in her Clare Hart series. Hart is an investigative profiler who’s called in when a dog makes a grisly discovery: a large group of bones in the area where Cape Town’s gibbets used to be. Most of the bones are upwards of 200 years old, and could be slaves or condemned prisoners. But there’s one set of bones that’s quite different. These bones, the remains of an unidentified woman, are only about 20 years old. The finding of the bones causes a lot of controversy, since the area had been set aside for a big development project. And there’s the important question of who the woman was and how her body ended up among the much older remains. SAPS Captain Riedwaan Faizal, who is Hart’s partner as well as her professional colleague, works with her to find out the truth about this murder. Among other things, this novel brings Hart and Faizal up against corporate greed, the politicians who benefit from that greed, and corrupt police who help make sure that nothing changes.

Cape Town is of course only one part of a varied country. It’s beautiful, vibrant, energetic, sometimes violent, and full of history. These are just a few novels that take place there. Which have you enjoyed?

ps. The ‘photos I took there during my trip weren’t particularly good. So….thanks, African Outposts, for this beautiful one.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Fourplay’s Cape Town.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Deon Meyer, Malla Nunn, Margie Orford, Roger Smith

28 responses to “So Dance in the Light of the Land That They Call Cape Town*

  1. Margot, a few years ago I read James McClure’s 1971 mystery, “The Steam Pig,” a rather grim look at a biracial team of police detectives working together in apartheid-era South Africa. I do not remember if it was set in Cape Town, but his Kramer and Zondi books, mostly police procedural, gave a frightening picture of life under that racial segregation. The books, I know, were very popular, but they were a bit too gritty for me.

    • Les – Thanks for mentioning the Kramer/Zondi series. I’ve read some awfully gritty books too that depict life under apartheid. I think it’s hard to strike a balance between being authentic and being so gritty as to be off-putting. On the one hand, one wants to be truthful. On the other, that truth was awfully ugly…

  2. I really enjoyed Coldsleep Lullaby by Andrew Brown. I love the insights he provides into South African history & culture.

    • Anne – Thanks very much for mentioning the Brown. I’ve heard really good things about that one, but haven’t (yet) read it. I appreciate the reminder to read it.

  3. I believe the only fictional mystery I’ve read that was set in South Africa was Dick Francis’ “Smokescreen.” I think it’s really good, but I’m a DF fan. 🙂

  4. I’ve read a few non-crime novels set in and around South Africa, but surprisingly few crime books – though of course one of the few IS the awesome Man in a Brown Suit, and I’m so glad you mentioned it.

    • Moira – I think that’s a great story too. And it is interesting to reflect on the kinds of books we read about a place. I hadn’t even thought about it deeply myself until I started thinking about this post.

  5. kathy d.

    The Malla Nunn books are terrific. Just read the fourth one “Present Darkness,” which was a good one.
    Read a few Jassy MacKenzie books, but didn’t care for the last one, although I give her credit for trying about a huge topic.
    I have read one Deon Meyer book “13 Hours,” I think, which was an excellent thriller.
    Want to read Margie Orford’s books; don’t know when. I’ll mark this one down to select. She was arrested for protesting apartheid years ago.
    I’d like to see if there wre Black authors in South Africa who are publishing mysteries. Haven’t seen any, but there must be some these days.

    • Kathy – I didn’t know that about Margie Orford. Thanks for letting us know. And I agree that Meyer writes very well-done thrillers. I recommend his work. And I think you’re right about Malla Nunn, too.

  6. Great post, Margot. I’m a big fan of both Malla Nunn’s and Margie Orford’s novels. And I’ve always wanted to visit Cape Tow. Hope to have the chance one day…

  7. I’ve been meaning to read Maggie Orford for awhile now: thanks for the interesting post that is getting me to rearrange my wish list, Margot!

  8. One of my favourite cities in the world – I have fond memories of that place (and also a less fond memory of being rushed to the emergency room when I discovered I had all of a sudden developed a shellfish allergy after consuming a huge bowl of seafood salad). I also love the ethnic mix and good humour in the face of adversity of most South Africans – and their wonderful hospitality.
    To the writers you mention above (I’m just getting into Margie Orford now), I’d also add the noirish fiction of Roger Smith (Sacrifices is a particularly tense thriller) and ‘Zulu’ by Caryl Ferey, both of which have Cape Town as a backdrop.and racial tensions/human weaknesses as the main subject.

    • Marina Sofia – It is a beautiful city, isn’t it? And I agree; the people are good-humoured and, I’ve found, helpful and friendly too. I’m so very sorry to hear you discovered your allergy the hard way though!
      Thanks for mentioning Roger Smith, whose Dust Devils, Captured and Sacrifices are, as you say, well-written noir. I’ve not (yet) read the Ferey, but I’ve heard that it’s quite good.

  9. First off, one is very envious as it sounds amazing Matgot! And thanks for the reminders of the fictional versions of th eplace (all new to me apat from Christie)

  10. A beautiful place! I’d love to make it over there one day. I’ve made it to Kenya, but haven’t gotten to South Africa yet. For now, I can visit it through fiction and be an armchair traveler…thanks for the book recommendations!

    • Elizabeth – Oh, I remember you went to Kenya! You are lucky! South Africa is a beautiful place, and Cape Town is lovely. Such a fascinating mix of cultures and languages, to say nothing of the food. 🙂 I hope you’ll get there some time.

  11. Col

    I’ve not tried too much from this neck of the woods – the odd James McClure and more recently Roger Smith, Mike Nicol and Deon Meyer – all of whom are very good.

  12. Some of these I have read, and I have enjoyed reading about this setting. Don’t know much about the area. But you have still added more books and authors for me to investigate.

  13. Pingback: Showcase Sunday: Added to my Teetering TBR Pile | findingtimetowrite

  14. The only crime novel I have read that’s set in Cape Town is Man in the Brown Suit. But I have read a couple of non-crime fiction books, and have loved them all.
    Lovely set of books you have profiled, and such different themes too. Wish you would do a similar set on books set in India 🙂

    • Natasha – You are reading my mind actually. I plan to do a post on just that topic actually. There is some excellent crime fiction set there, and it’s very much worth exploring. I wish more of it were translated into English; as some is in Hindi, which I can’t read.

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