The Best Fiction Books » Crime Novels

Best Southern African Crime Fiction

recommended by Michael Stanley

A Carrion Death: Introducing Detective Kubu by Michael Stanley

A Carrion Death: Introducing Detective Kubu
by Michael Stanley


From high-stakes thrillers to cosy mysteries, from South African township life to Zimbabwe's independence, Southern African crime fiction is a flourishing genre. Michael Sears, half of the crime-writing duo Michael Stanley, talks us through some of the best Southern African crime books out there and explains how they shed light on important issues.

A Carrion Death: Introducing Detective Kubu by Michael Stanley

A Carrion Death: Introducing Detective Kubu
by Michael Stanley

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For people who haven’t read any Southern African crime fiction, could you say a bit about the genre and what’s distinctive about it?

Southern African crime fiction has changed over the years. James McClure (1936-2006) wrote a series of books from the UK which were set in apartheid South Africa, and Malla Nunn, more recently, has also written books set in 1950s South Africa. Those had a particular theme, which was illustrating apartheid and how it worked or, more accurately, how it didn’t work. So that was very specific.

Since the democratic elections in 1994, South African crime fiction has tended to explore different features of the political and criminal scene in South Africa. The four books on this list that are set in South Africa are examples of that. One theme that comes through quite strongly is corruption in various areas because, unfortunately, that has developed. It can be corruption within the police or in other areas which the police are trying to deal with.

Then of course there’s the sense of place itself, which is very different from other parts of the world.

One thing we’ve found about South African crime fiction, as opposed to Southern African crime fiction (and we tried to expand the range of this discussion a little bit to include Southern Africa), is that in South Africa a lot of the themes and a lot of the interactions are the results of what was inherited from the apartheid regime. Even now, nearly thirty years after the change of government, there are still a lot of the remnants. Sometimes it’s used as an excuse for not taking actions that should be taken. Apartheid is a shadow that still hangs over the country.

That milieu is the background to the crime fiction that’s successful in South Africa and that’s one of the reasons why our books are set in Botswana. Botswana is a landlocked country, with its western borders being more or less straight lines on the map. In the east, it borders with Zimbabwe. You might say, ‘What’s different?’ Everything’s different because of the history. Botswana was never a colony, actually, and its traditions are much more persistent because it never had the disruption that occurred to the cultural aspects in South Africa. You have writers like Alexander McCall Smith and ourselves—the Michael Stanley books are set there—and they are very different because they don’t satisfy any of those things that I just said about South Africa. They are much more Africa-based.

By the way, we chose books that were written by Southern African writers. Otherwise, Alexander McCall Smith’s very delightful and intriguing books, set in Botswana, would certainly have a place here, as well as some other overseas writers. Paul Mendelson, for example, spent a lot of time in South Africa and writes very fine South African crime fiction.

You’ve chosen a fantastic set of books. I should perhaps explain here that you, Michael Sears, chose them with Stanley Trollip, your co-author (together, you’re ‘Michael Stanley’, author of a crime fiction series set in Botswana). Do you want to tell me a bit about how the two of you chose them?

There’s a wealth of options to choose from. We focussed on local writers as well as local settings. At first, we thought we’d suggest African crime fiction, but that turned out to be much too broad.

The reason I know a bit about this—and I don’t regard myself as an expert—is I do a monthly piece called “Africa Scene” on African crime and thriller fiction for the International Thriller Writers e-magazine, The Big Thrill. I try to keep up to date with new books as they come out, and then I sometimes do an interview with the author.

“The sense of place…is very different from other parts of the world”

We looked among the group of authors that we felt were particularly special in the Southern African context. In South Africa, there are two really obvious writers who have a long history of writing successful crime fiction and who have explored a lot of the issues that I mentioned earlier. Those are Deon Meyer and Mike Nicol. Meyer’s books have been made into TV series and are quite well-known around the world. Nicol is very widely published and appreciated in much of Europe—in Germany, in particular, and in France. There are a lot of writers in South Africa whose work is appreciated here, but we did want to choose writers who were available and somewhat known outside of South Africa. Then it became a question of which books to select.

Let’s start with Deon Meyer. He writes in Afrikaans, so if you’re reading him in English, it’s also the work of his long-term translator, Laura Seeger. Which book of his did you choose?

We felt that his most recent book, The Dark Flood, was a departure from his previous ones in his police procedural series, whose main characters are Benny Griessel and Vaughan Cupido. They’re senior officers in the elite Hawks squad but in this book, they have been demoted because they’ve not obeyed orders that would have caused them to do immoral things.

They’re sent off to Stellenbosch, which is a small but attractive wine country town, and there they get involved in a number of different crimes. The most significant one is a big multinational conglomerate, which collapses and takes the local economy with it and the spinoffs from that. It’s actually loosely based on a true story. It has a lot of features which we think would make an excellent introduction to the series. If you read that book, I think you’d want to read more Benny Griessel books.

Meyer’s books have definitely made it internationally because I’ve picked up and read a couple of them myself. For those who haven’t, can you say a bit more about the detectives? I seem to remember Griessel struggles with his drinking.

Yes, he’s a recovering alcoholic. In almost every book, I think, he’s either on the verge of drinking again, or does start drinking again and has to drag himself back. In the last few books, he’s developed a romantic relationship with another recovering alcoholic and the two of them help each other. Vaughan Cupido is a detective of mixed race.

The two of them form a team. They’ve got different philosophies and different interests. But as in so many police procedurals, when you have a team like that, you get an interesting interplay between the detectives.

As I mentioned, they end up in the elite Hawks squad, which deals with the most serious and most challenging crimes. The previous books in the series have been police procedurals involving different types of cases. One of his books that is worth mentioning—and was a close runner-up for our list—is Thirteen Hours. It’s a thriller about an American girl who’s been on a trip through Southern Africa and for reasons that are not clear until the end of the book, is being hunted on Table Mountain in Cape Town. The action is between her trying to escape from these killers and the police trying to find out what’s happened to her. That’s a difficult thing to do when you don’t have a motive or much way of tracing where she is. That’s the last book that kept me up until four in the morning because I had to know what happened at the end.

We chose the Stellenbosch one because it was a bit different. A lot of the action follows Sandra Steenberg, an estate agent who is trying to sell a property in Stellenbosch that a tycoon is now selling because his business has collapsed. Of course it’s not a clean sale. The farm is not in his name and Steenberg gets dragged into an international intrigue.

The police are also trying to find a kidnapped student because Stellenbosch is a university town. So there are these different themes in the book.

Is the wine country setting a big part of the book?

It’s a wine farm that Steenberg is trying to sell. Owning a fancy wine farm in a good area of the Cape has become a trophy for big businessmen. When you’ve made it, you buy a wine farm in the Cape, and you become a wine farmer. You have your private reserve, and you’ll probably lose lots of money on it, but you don’t care.

Let’s move on to the next book you’ve chosen, which is also part of a series, but very different. Tell me more about Recipes for Love and Murder by Sally Andrews.  

This is set in South Africa, in the Klein Karoo, which is a rural area in the semi-arid part of the country. It’s just delightful. It’s an intriguing murder investigation with wonderful small-town characters.

The heroine, Tannie Maria, is a superb cook. She loves to prepare and create recipes. She writes a recipe column for the local newspaper, the Klein Karoo Gazette, and then she gets pushed into writing a lonely hearts column as well. The two are combined: she solves the lonely hearts problems with recipes which she suggests that the romantic parties should try on each other to improve their relationship. It’s very enjoyable. I suppose you would call it cosy, though the murders can be quite dark.

In the times that Maria is investigating the murders, she runs afoul of the police by interfering with what they’re trying to do, but she develops a romantic relationship with one of them.

The Tannie Maria series has been very successful worldwide, and there’s a TV series of the book as well. We chose the first book in the series, Recipes for Love and Murder, because it’s the right place to start, in terms of introducing the characters.

The author uses quite a lot of Afrikaans words, doesn’t she? You feel that she’s a local.

Yes. It’s an area of the country where Afrikaans is the main language. The majority of people speak Afrikaans and probably a local African language, but the books are written in English. I think you’ll find the same with Deon Meyer’s and Mike Nicol’s books and we do it too with our books. We put in a few words that we think give a little bit of local flavour and colour, because that’s what people do. You sometimes hear people talking to each other and it’s a mixture of English, Afrikaans, and another language. I think that all the authors—and we certainly do this—will only do it where the word’s meaning is either obvious from the context or doesn’t matter.

In our books, we include a glossary of the local words that we use for people to look up if they really care. But we don’t do it in such a way that people have to start paging back and forth to the glossary. That’s not going to work in fiction.

Although the title mentions recipes and there’s a cosy crime element, quite early on there’s mention of domestic abuse. So it’s not completely cosy, even at the start, is it?

That’s absolutely correct. Andrew does address serious themes, and abuse is one of them. Tannie Maria has had an unhappy marriage. Her husband has died and she managed to escape from it. This colours a lot of her thinking. In particular, she’s very cautious about a relationship with another man after that. So yes, there are deep issues and those extend into the other books in the series as well.

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All the writers we’re talking about have tried to bring issues that may be universal, may be Southern African, or may be both into their books. We certainly do that with our Botswana books. That’s perhaps another reason why we set them in Botswana: we felt we could bring up Southern African themes (and not just those in the spotlight of the aftermath of apartheid). For example, the independence war in Zimbabwe; blood diamonds; so-called muti murders—a very dark theme: the murder of individuals to harvest body parts for use in black magic. It sounds like a science fiction or horror trope, but it’s a real issue in Sub-Saharan Africa. All of these themes can come out and make the books a bit different from what you’d find, perhaps, in Western fiction.

You mentioned Zimbabwe, which declared independence in 1980 after a brutal war (previously, it had been called Rhodesia). This might be a good moment to turn to your next choice, The Quality of Mercy.

This was only published earlier this month. It’s Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu’s latest book in her City of Kings trilogy. It’s really lyrical literary fiction as much as it is crime fiction. It’s about a detective whose name is Spokes Moloi. It starts with a fable which is an introduction to the area and his life after he comes back from fighting in the Second World War.

I haven’t spoken to Ndlovu yet, but I’m going to be doing an interview with her. For reasons I’m not 100 percent sure about yet, she sets her books in a fictional African country. But all the aspects of it are Zimbabwe, which is her home country. The Quality of Mercy is set at the time of the changeover between Rhodesia into Zimbabwe and all the tensions and frictions that produced.

Again, we thought it was a bit of a landmark, in terms of taking the Southern African political scene and showing how it affects real people, from the inside. She’s a Zimbabwean writer and she knows what she’s talking about.

I’ve seen it described as cosy crime, which doesn’t tally with your description.

It doesn’t contain a lot of blood and guts, but I don’t think that fact means the crimes are cosy. You might question whether it’s a crime fiction book at all. The crime aspects are that it explores the commitments and emotions of the detective, which I suppose a lot of police procedurals do. But it’s not a police procedural either. There’s a lot of other stuff going on, and it’s embedded in the type of government before and after the change to independence in Zimbabwe.

It’s a book that’s very hard to pigeonhole, and I like those books. You could call it literary fiction, or genre fiction, or crime fiction. You could even call it a police procedural, in the sense that one of the main characters is a police detective and there are crimes being investigated. But that’s definitely not the whole story. It’s lyrical and that’s what struck me. The writing is really beautiful.

Let’s turn to Sifiso Mzobi’s book, which also defies genre. Tell me about Young Blood.

This was the first book that looked at township life in South Africa from a novelist’s point of view. Mzobi knows it really well. This was a landmark in South African crime fiction because it switched from the police procedural thriller trope to a novel based on a coming of age in the townships where the only way of making it, in any sense, is through crime.

This is not such a recent book (we tried to focus on more recent books) but it’s still as relevant today as it was when he wrote it. It won the Sunday Times literary prize in 2011 as well as the 2012 Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature. It’s now been published by Catalyst Press, so it’s available internationally.

For people who don’t know South Africa, do you think crime fiction is a good way of learning about some of the challenges the country faces? Do you feel this book, about growing up in a township, does a good job of highlighting some of the issues?

Yes, absolutely. This book really introduces readers to the way in which these townships operate and the opportunities, or lack thereof, that young people have. Unemployment of young people in South Africa is at around 50 percent today, so it’s even worse than in the days when the book was set.

It also shows the physical structure. You have a white suburb and then there is a township that has developed around that, which may be for supplying work to that area. In the apartheid days, there was a white area with the city and the factories and the townships developed around that. Around those were informal settlements, and around those were more informal settlements. You’ll have somebody building a shack and then renting out half of it to somebody else or saying, ‘You can build a shack over there.’

I think fiction does a wonderful job of introducing people to these realities. The sense of place is one of the most important things about Young Blood. But it’s only valuable because of the character that we care about. He gets sucked into the criminal side and then tries to fight his way back out, which is difficult because once you’ve been involved, you know things and people don’t want you to ever leave.

The book is very successful at following that character in the first person through the book and illustrating the setting. I think that’s why it was a landmark. Nobody else had done that.

Let’s get to your final book, which is by Mike Nicol. You already mentioned him as one of the big South African crime fiction writers. How did you choose which of his books to recommend?

It was difficult. He has two series, and we chose a later book in one of his series. It’s called Sleeper and it’s a thriller. It’s about a private investigator whose name is Fish Pescado. He’s a surfer boy in Cape Town, and his partner, Vicki, is an ex-spy with a South African spy authority, the State Security Agency. They make an unlikely but very intriguing combination. We thought this was one of his best, most successful books, balancing the PI and the spy aspects.

I started reading it and it was quite pageturner-ish. I didn’t want to stop.

Mike Nicols runs writing courses. His books are written in almost a staccato style. I’ve asked him about that, and he said that with crime fiction you’re breaking the law, people are getting injured, there are assassinations. Life is being distorted, and he tries to reflect that in the language in which he writes. He’s regarded as one of South Africa’s strongest stylists that way. If you look at his writing, you’ll find three-word sentences with no verbs in them. You would perhaps not tell your students to write that way, but it works very well. It really keeps you moving.

This is also the most thriller-ish of the books, in the sense that there’s a briefcase of uranium and a big plot, rather than small-scale crimes.

That’s right. As I mentioned, one of his protagonists works for the government as a spy and has those skills. She is also semi-addicted to gambling, which is a risky combination for a spy. The other one is a private eye, so he has a much broader approach to how these crimes can be investigated. This one starts with the murder of the Minister of Energy, so it drops you right in there in the depths of what’s going on in the government.

“Nicol picks themes that are high up in the country’s priorities”

Nicol picks themes that are high up in the country’s priorities and, at the moment, power generation is a huge one. South Africa has daily scheduled blackouts, and there’s been talk of buying nuclear power stations from the Russians. Control over these things is not as good as it should be, and you do not want enriched uranium to be traded on markets to terrorists. These are real concerns. South Africa has nuclear facilities and it’s a very reasonable question as to whether the control is as good as it should be. That’s what he explores in the book, among other things.

Lastly, can you tell me about the police procedural series you write with Stanley Trollip as Michael Stanley? Who is the detective, what’s the best book to start with etc.?

Our detective’s nickname is Kubu, which means ‘hippopotamus’ in Setswana. He’s got that nickname because he’s a very big, somewhat overweight guy. But also because if you get between a hippo and the water, you’re probably going to be in bad shape. Once he’s focused on a crime, that’s where he’s going to go. So he has that hippo feature, too.

Our first book was called A Carrion Death, and it had the backstory theme of blood diamonds. It introduced Kubu and his family and that would possibly be where people would like to start.

The idea for the book came because Stan is a pilot, and we used to do fly-in trips to different areas of Botswana and Zimbabwe. On one occasion, we saw a pack of hyenas attack and pull down a wildebeest. Hyenas are scavengers if there’s one of them, but if there are 50, they’re very successful hunters, which there were in that pack. Over the period of an hour or so, they’d eaten everything. They crunched the bones and ate the skin. There were some horns left and perhaps some bits of hoof, but that was it.

We thought that this would make a great way of getting rid of a body in a murder mystery. After all, how can the police trace a murderer if there’s no body—if it’s been processed by hyenas? That’s the premise that starts the book. An ecologist and a game ranger discover a body being eaten by a hyena (the discovery is too soon for the disappearance of the body to actually occur). After we start writing, the question was, ‘Why was it important that this body be completely removed from the world?’ That led to A Carrion Death.

Kubu appears fully fleshed out, literally and metaphorically in A Carrion Death and there’s no backstory for him because he wasn’t going to be the main character. We just needed a detective to investigate this murder. But he appeared and took over the series. There are six books in that series.

Recently, we’ve been writing prequels to A Carrion Death. The first book, Facets of Death starts when he joins the force as a detective sergeant in the CID. It’s his first big case at the CID. The second book is set in a different part of Botswana. We try to set the books around Botswana, and to have at least a theme which connects with other areas of Botswana, because it’s a very fascinating country in terms of diversity of culture and environment. We’re busy working on the third book at the moment, which links the three prequels with A Carrion Death.

So you could start with A Carrion Death, as the first book that introduces Kubu. Or you could start with Facets of Death, which is the day he joins the CID.

Do you need to do quite a lot of research on the political and economic structures of Botswana, and what’s going on there, to be able to explore these themes in the books?

Yes. Things have changed very dramatically since Ian Khama stepped down as president in 2018. That’s another story and I don’t think your readers necessarily want to hear about Botswana politics, but there’s a lot of stuff going on. That hasn’t really affected us because our last contemporary book was set during Khama’s period.

The prequels have their own issues. We always make a point of visiting the areas where we set our books, talking to people and eating at local places. Facets of Death is set just before 2000, so we now have to try and work out what was going on in Botswana 25 years ago. We were visiting then, but one’s memory doesn’t always produce quite the accuracy that one would like, so we’ve done a lot of research.

We know a lot of people in Botswana. At one stage we were friendly with the commissioner of police, but he’s retired now. We have a lot of contacts and we spend a lot of time on research. That’s part of the fun, to be able to meet people from different environments and cultures and chat to them. People in Botswana are very friendly and very willing to share all these things with us.

It sounds a lot of fun.

We were once in the town of Kasane and we needed to know how you would escape from the holding cells at the police station. We managed to speak to the head of the station and he wasn’t very pleased with our question. By sheer good luck, Stan got out his cell phone, phoned the commissioner of police’s number, and he took the call. Suddenly, we were very much persona grata with the head of the police station. He took us on a tour of the cells and explained how you could get out of them and all the rest of it. So yes, we’ve had great fun in our explorations of Botswana.


September 16, 2023

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Michael Stanley

Michael Stanley

Michael Stanley is the writing duo Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. Both are retired professors who have worked in academia and business. Sears is a mathematician, specializing in geological remote sensing. Trollip is an educational psychologist, specializing in the application of computers to teaching and learning, and a pilot. They were both born in South Africa.

Michael Stanley

Michael Stanley

Michael Stanley is the writing duo Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. Both are retired professors who have worked in academia and business. Sears is a mathematician, specializing in geological remote sensing. Trollip is an educational psychologist, specializing in the application of computers to teaching and learning, and a pilot. They were both born in South Africa.