Crime Fiction and the ‘Metaphysics of Disorder’

Counting the Coffins by Diale Tlholwe Cape Town: Kwela Books, 2011.

The Lazarus Effect by H.J. Golakai Cape Town: Kwela Books, 2011.

Many South Africans currently find themselves articulating their thoughts about crime – at the office, in pubs and shebeens, on the evening news, in the daily papers, around the dinner table. Crime-talk is everywhere. At the same time, seventeen years after our democratic dispensation began, South African readers are satisfying their desire to know more about crime, as well as a hunger for “state of the nation” narratives, through the consumption of crime fiction.

Deon Meyer’s hard-hitting crime novels have enthralled many readers. Additionally, English crime fiction authors such as Mike Nicol, Richard Kunzmann, Roger Smith, Margie Orford, Jassy Mckenzie and Sifiso Mzobe (who recently won the 2011 Sunday Times Prize for Fiction) are being widely read.

The scarcity of crime fiction by black authors was recently broken by Angela Makholwa’s Red Ink and Mzobe’s Young Blood. Now, Diale Tlholwe and Hawa Golakai have joined the team.

Tlholwe’s well-received debut novel, Ancient Rites, revealed the author’s view of a South-African nation “entangled in a myriad of complexities and bafflements”, caught between “old certainties and new truths” (23, 47). His latest, Counting the Coffins, is set to cement his place as a strong voice in a genre that deserves greater scholarly interest. Golakai’s debut, The Lazarus Effect, has already started to attract critical attention.


Both novels engage with generic conventions as they deliver page-turning, accessible and eventful narratives that grip the reader with good local stories. Tlholwe and Golakai offer personal quests for redemption matched by larger investigations into crimes against women, human trafficking and sexual abuse.

Set in Johannesburg, Counting the Coffins is less a novel of conventional detection than a sobering assessment of post-apartheid disorder. By focusing on the “feral corruption” and “depravity” of nouveau-riche businessmen almost two decades after the armed struggle, Tlholwe scrutinises the “metaphysics of disorder” (Comaroff 2004) that manifest themselves in Johannesburg.

Some months after the point at which Ancient Rites ends, private investigator Thabang Maje now works at Thekiso and Ditoro: Security Consultants and Private Investigators, a “highly elastic and useful tag that encompasses everything from providing bodyguards to minor celebrities and politicians with delusions of grandeur, to investigating dubious business people on behalf of suspicious associates”.

After an initial diagnosis of the “virulent human viruses polluting the ethical bloodstream of this city, if not the country”, the “disillusioned hero” must look into the shady dealings of a group of powerful men, exemplified by the “grizzled” Sandile Nkosi, and get to the bottom of pyramid schemes, drug deals and human trafficking, all in a day’s work. Aiding Thabang in his quest for truth is Tokoloho Mohapi, a journalist and Thabang’s one-time flame, now friend.

By contrast, Golakai’s The Lazarus Effect is set in Cape Town. Far more conventional in its approach to the mystery-novel skeleton of murder, investigation and resolution, its subversion of the genre’s most obvious patterns make it equally compelling.

Golakai presents us with a Liberian, female protagonist, Voinjama Johnson, a 28-year-old investigative journalist at Cape Town magazine Urban, who goes by the shortened name of Vee. She suffers from panic attacks and has repeated visions of a teenage girl in a red hat. After Vee views a photograph of the girl, Jacqui Paulsen, at a local hospital, and hears about the girl’s disappearance, Vee uses an article about missing children in the city as a ruse to investigate the girl’s disappearance.

This brings her into the middle of a fractured and complex relationship between the Fourie and Paulsen families, and she is drawn into a labyrinthine history of secrets, lies and possible murder.

Both Counting the Coffins and The Lazarus Effect open with stark and disturbing prologues (Lazarus also features an epilogue). Counting the Coffins starts with morose, insistent refrains of “things that should not be”. This gives us a glimpse into the “small, cold relic” of a deceased child that haunts the protagonist, following the irresponsible driving and death of the “drugged, misbegotten” teenage son of businessman Sandile Nkosi, “now just another body in another coffin” in a “country of coffins”:

It should have been cold, dark and gloomy. It should have poured slanting sheets of rain and hard hailstones. The wind should have been demented and howling bitter curses. Memorial stones vast and small should have been bowed in pensive melancholy …

This passage from Counting the Coffins is eerily similar in tone and texture to the more graphic depiction of violent death that confronts us in the prologue of The Lazarus Effect: “The teenager broke the bones of her neck and wrist and felt no pain ... Stinking, litter-strewn, muddy water, swollen by heavy rains and the effluent of other people’s lives and carelessness, pushed the remains back and forth.”

Whereas Tlholwe’s prologue sets up a frame of private pain and personal torment, Golakai’s prologue speaks directly as a metaphor for the “faceless” and “nameless” in Cape Town that live under the bridge of society, so to speak, those who slip through the cracks and have no recourse to or shelter from harm.

Counting the Coffins offers a methodical quest to bring a group of clearly identified and well-sketched perpetrators of economic and violent crime to justice. Unhurried in his exposition and pace, there is much to admire in the way that Tlholwe slowly but surely draws the reader into the serpentine world of the private eye, one with a family and nagging memories of the past. The writer renders his investigator, Maje, all too aware of the contingency of truth, the danger of preconceived ideas and hasty judgements, and of the many different faces of evil.

Critical of the “power hungry” elites in Johannesburg, Tlholwe casts a jaundiced eye on the class of nouveau riche in that city. An uncompleted shopping mall at Thokoza, built by “colourless and indistinct men”, is the main site of Maje’s investigation, and it stands as a telling metaphor for social collapse. At one point, the distraught yet resolute Maje notes that “there were just too many coffins connected to that mall. It was time somebody started counting them, adding up the costs and sending someone the bill”.

Tlholwe makes it clear that women are often victims of male rage and violence, seen as dispensable commodities and “cheap sluts”. In the city, they are doomed to perish “in the gutters, dustbins and early unmarked graves. Free at last and very dead.” Such acts of violence against women are all the more possible since “the law is silent on this matter … at best, it is in hiccups”, and because of the country’s “moral stagnation”.

Accordingly, we hear that “[s]tonewalling” and “polished knavery” have become the currency of choice for the ruling elites, “covering the spectrum of human depravity”. While noting a great number of rats in the abandoned mall, a wonderful metaphor for the “scurrying” people in a “whimsical play”, Maje recognises how “once dearly held, precious things – honour, pride and principle – were suffocating to death, with their cold, numberless coffins ready and waiting to receive them”.

This mention of “cold, numberless coffins” neatly crisscrosses with the framing factual assertion in The Lazarus Effect that “[o]ver one thousand six hundred children go missing every year … three hundred of them are never heard from again”. Golakai’s sensible and tough protagonist Vee is a solo jogger suffering from episodes of “idiopathic illness” and “psychosomatic manifestations of pain”. The root of her trauma lies in the miscarriage she suffered previously, with the loss of an unborn child another similarity between the two texts.

In Ancient Rites, Tlholwe alludes to the fact that “[s]ooner or later everybody gets involved, including not-so-innocent bystanders”, and Counting the Coffins returns at various moments to the fact that inspector Maje is a changed man after his killing of a “pious man” in the mountains of Botswana. Conversely, The Lazarus Effect delays our insight into the trauma of Vee’s past — and indeed the collective trauma of a Liberian nation — until a significant part of the novel has passed. In harrowing passages near the end of the novel we hear of the cold-blooded murder of civilians, and how Vee must kill a young soldier who wants to rape her in order to survive, before emigrating to South Africa. The writers thus add to the investment readers have in the protagonists by virtue of their status as fallible human beings with a strong sense of moral justice rather than a belief in the fact that the law will take its course.

In their respective approaches to detection and “detectives”, both the male private eye Thabang Maje and the female investigative journalist Vee Johnson apply street-smart knowledge, as well as deductive reasoning, to solve their mysteries. We are offered a pleasing amount of interiority and complexity of character without getting the impression that the writer uses his or her protagonist as a mere cipher. Tlholwe imbues Maje with the same sense of emotional vulnerability and moral indignation as Deon Meyer’s detective Bennie Griessel, and it is hard not to side with a hard-nosed, kickass black man with an unerring moral compass in an age where so few works of fiction present hard-boiled men of colour operating on the right side of the law.

Vee Johnson is cut from the same cloth as Margie Orford’s Clare Hart and Jassy Mckenzie’s Jade De Jong, tough-as-nails women who refuse to stand by while criminals prey on the innocent and vulnerable. Like Hart and De Jong, Vee is the antithesis of the often powerless and exploited female figures one encounters all too often in crime fiction. She is physically able to defend herself, determined, highly intelligent and very likeable, but she is also rarely represented as anything but a working woman, earning our respect through an often painfully slow process of investigation.

Whereas Maje is repeatedly figured as an outsider, one with considerable inner strength and uncanny insight into a nation seemingly out of touch with its traditions and moral values, Vee is the perfect foil as a dislocated “foreigner” for Golakai’s writerly instincts, making visible the plight of the invisible. By making her heroine a woman of colour, and by deciding to partner Vee with a white, lesbian woman in Chloe, Golakai gives us a refreshing crime-fighting combo.

Tlholwe allows us the comfort of following Maje on his quest to mete out his own brand of moral justice to a clearly identified cohort of wrongdoers, while Golakai expertly utilises the considerable suspense of her murder mystery to delay the revelation of the killer’s identity. Equally impressive is the way both of these writers tackle big issues in a style that never collapse into trite grandstanding or melodramatic, tinny moralising. Tlholwe is a thoughtful writer and his social responsibility is reflected in his overarching focus on the poor and helpless, particularly women. Both novels appear to embody what Tlholwe states in Ancient Rites, that “people want to see other people”. Guilty parties and perpetrators are defamiliarised, while supposed power players are ridiculed and revealed as morally vacuous. This is achieved without reverting to simplistic caricatures and broad-stroke demonising.

The Lazarus Effect avoids the sensationalist brutality that to which female bodies are often subjected in crime. While we are able to tap into a sense of vicarious victimhood, the novel avoids cheap shock value by not making the central victim yet another silent rape statistic or the target of pornographic cruelty. By rooting the mystery deep inside the recesses of hidden family trauma, the anguish of victim and the humanity of the violator are both brought to light, a welcome subversion of stereotypical exposition.

Tlholwe’s writing is refreshing, unlike the predictably hard-boiled approach in Nicol’s Revenge Trilogy or the works of Roger Smith. Rather than adopt the ultra-violent, no-holds-barred thriller character of these texts, Tlholwe chooses to write a limited yet memorable number of high-impact set pieces in which the skill of the writing instead of violent content grabs the reader. While the writing is consistently tight, the story and characters have plenty of room to breathe. This lets the reader soak up the adamantine atmosphere, the lacerating descriptions of the state of the nation, the slowly accumulative sense of menace and foreboding, and the sharp quips from Maje as he works his way through a maze of “snakes” and “rats” in a concrete jungle of corruption in the city of gold.

The novel ends with a sense of open-endedness as Maje questions his sense of place and belonging in a “mad screwed-up country” while singing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”. This ending typifies Tlholwe’s resistance to all-encompassing restorations of order, while gesturing towards a sense of community he appears to deem vital.

The Lazarus Effect is less allegorical than Counting the Coffins but no less effective in the way its writing draws attention to the plight of children who go missing in Cape Town every day.

The crime fiction novel is here employed to offer sharp social commentary. Having a non-white, female, Liberian protagonist with strong connections to African men from elsewhere on the continent adds another layer to the motif of displacement and dislocation in the novel’s internal logic.

Tlholwe and Golakai deserve praise for their ability to match style with substance. Ultimately, the titles of both texts speak to a shared anxiety over the alien state of the nation. Without being obtrusively self-conscious, Counting the Coffins and The Lazarus Effect are valuable additions to South African crime fiction.


Works Cited

Comaroff, Jean and Comaroff, John. 2004. “Criminal Obsessions, after Foucault: Postcoloniality, Policing and the Metaphysics of Disorder.” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 30, No. 4 (Summer 2004), pp. 800-824.

Comaroff, Jean and Comaroff, John. L, eds. 2006. Law and Disorder in the Postcolony. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

“Crime Lit in SA – a New Phenomenon” Report written by International Marketing Council of South Africa and published to the web 4 January 2011. Available online at

Fletcher, Elizabeth. “Why do we read crime fiction?” Available online at

Nicol, Mike. “A short history of South African crime fiction.” Available online at


Orford, Margie. “Eminently exportable”. Available online at



Mack says:

Annel and Jonathan,
Thank you for the suggestions. Fruit of the Poisoned Tree is sitting on my Kindle now. I will start looking for the other titles today.

I recently read Byleveld: Dossier of a Serial Sleuth which I found quite interesting. I know the intent was to focus on Byleveld tracking down serial killers but I wish a bit more about police work under apartheid had been discussed.

I agree with the praise of Sarah Lotz. I’ve read Tooth and Nailed and it is, as you say, simply brilliant.

Jono87 says:

Mack, to add to Annel’s list, also try David Klatzow’s Steeped in Blood. He is our leading South African independent forensic analyst, and it’s a very edifying read.

For something more comical than the crime noir writers, try Sarah Lotz. Her writing is exceptionally clever and her two crime novels that I’ve read, Exhibit A and Tooth and Nailed, are simply brilliant.

Annel says:

Mack, if you’re into SA crime fiction you might want to check out some of the non-fiction that’s been written by our top investigative journalists:

“Midlands” and “The Number” by Jonny Steinberg

“Fruit of a Poisoned Tree” by Antony Altbeker

“Killing Kebble” by Mandy Weiner

“Finish & Klaar” by Adriaan Basson

Mack says:

Hi Jonathan,
Thanks for your detailed response. These exchanges have been valuable for me. I’m still pondering the answers to the post that started this– the use of the word “English.” Actually I feel a little dumb about it. I’m a great fan of James McClure’s Kramer and Zondi novels and “English” is used to distinguish cultures. At least I think it does, I’m about to start re-reading the series so I will keep it in mind.

Jono87 says:

Thank you again for the response Mack.

I would like to offer some footnotes to the review and respond to the question of judgement that arose for you from the review.

I am a very big fan of Mike Nicol and Roger Smith myself, and for related yet also different reasons. Nicol, to me, is a writer that is playing a self-confessed “game” with readers in his crime fiction. Apart from utilising the noir-thriller form very effectively to do exactly as you say – to look at the origins and effects of violence in South Africa, its seemingly intrinsic connection to political powerplays, corporate corruption, lawlessness etc – his writing is also incredibly stylised, its self-reflexive, tongue-in-cheek at times, and also very troubling.

I say this because Nicol is using his free reign as an author to construct visions of South African society and Cape Town in particular that are invariably dystopian, very, very bleak, and the question then becomes how much of the “real” is actually revealed, or obscured, for narrative purposes.

Roger Smith has struck me as the one South African crime fiction author that is fearless in his approach to his subject matter. While other authors inevitably provide moments of violence or shock value Smith just never relents; the characters that people his narratives just cannot wake up from the nightmare or inevitably “wake up dead”, even redemption can seemingly only come through a bullet, or a sea of well-directed gunfire. There are no conventional heroes and villains, and there are no happy endings. Ever.

Having read his work, you will know that his books are just un-putdownable, despite, or perhaps for, this very reason. The villains don’t just die at the end, they die at every juncture, and instead of some form of restorative justice, what Smith ultimately achieves is to reveal just how unavoidable the induction of some men are into the cycle of violence that defines their lives.

In my reading of Thlolwe, abbreviated of course for review purposes, his work is no more worthy or strong than that of Nicol or Smith because of its form. What I was impressed by is his perceptive and subtle social commentary on societal decay that is not necessarily accompanied by buckets of blood.

The point you make about Thlolwe as an interrogator of black/ethnic identity is something I don’t discuss in the review, but it is an astute observation, and perhaps ultimately what separates his writing from that of other writers. Thank you for re-igniting that important spark for me.

Mack says:

Amid’s article was timely for me. I was nearly finished with Gloakai’s The Lazarus Effect. Tlholwe’s Ancient Rites and Counting the Coffins were in my reading queue. His analysis is interesting and will send me back to these books for a second reading.

These two sentences in the article bother me though

“Tlhowle’s writing is refreshing, unlike the predictably hard-boiled approach in Nicol’s Revenge trilogy or the works of Roger Smith. Rather than adopt the ultra-violent, no-holds-barred thriller character of these texts, Tlhowle chooses to write a limited yet memorable number of high impact set pieces in which the skill of the writing, instead of violent content grabs the reader.”

Amid dismisses the works of Roger Smith and Mike Nicol as less worthy because they are framed as violent thrillers and —to him— do not exhibit the same skill in writing as Tlhowle’s approach. Certainly many thrillers fall into the “read and forget” category but it is unjustified to say that one form of crime fiction is superior to another based solely on the form in which the author chooses to express himself, ie “ultra-violent thrillers” vs “high impact set pieces.” Both Smith and Nicol write social commentary, they have just chose a different mode in which to convey their truths.

The books of Roger Smith got me interested in African crime fiction in the first place and, because of him, I was led to books like Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull: Guilt, Sorrow, and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa; Jacques Pauw’s Into the Heart of Darkness: Confessions of Apartheid’s Assassins; and Peter Harris’ In a Different Time: The Inside Story of the Delmas Four. Both Smith and Nicol have inspired me to learn more about South Africa and thus become a more knowledgable reader. Both of these authors have heightened my awareness of African crime fiction which is why I am now also reading Diale Tlholwe, H.J. Golakai, Unity Dow, and Sifiso Mzobe.

Smith and Nicol choose to look at violence in South Africa society, its origins and effects. For them, the violent thriller is appropriate. Tlhowle looks at the loss of identity amongst his people and the style in which he writes conveys those sentiments very effectively.

I am pleased that Mr. Amid wrote this article and I hope it is widely read. I think African crime fiction writing is second to none in the world and I want to see these writers recognized outside of Africa.

Mack says:

Jono87 and Annel, thank you for your responses. Your comments answer my question quite well . I’m an American reader of African crime fiction and I’m still working my way through the complexities and nuances of expression that I encounter. “English” certainly carries a different meaning that what I understood by the word.

Annel says:

Hi Mack

Your question is an interesting one that has prompted me to think about what South Africans mean when they speak about “English”, “English literature” or “English studies”.

In my personal experience as an Afrikaans South African who grew up being educated in the English language, I’ve found that English-speaking South Africans, or South Africans of English descent, tend to correct one when one calls them “English”, since they are actually “English-speaking South Africans”.

So, when a South African talks of “English” writing, they are very often referring to writing by an author who writes in English, even if English is not their first language, and even though they are not natives or descendants of the country known as England.

What is very ironic about the perpetuation of an English nationalism and identity through the study of English literature, is that English studies is in fact a very young discipline, which began during the period of English colonisation of India and Africa, so it’s only about 150 years old. A compounded irony is the fact that English studies actually originated in the colonies, and was taught as a subject in the curriculum of said colonies long before it was institutionalised in the home country.

In his article “Globalization and the Claims of Postcoloniality”, published in the South Atlantic Quarterly 100:3 in 2003, Simon Gikandi notes that “from its beginnings in India, Africa [and the Celtic fringe], English has been a discipline that has been defined and shadowed by a double paradox” (647). He emphasises that, of all the European languages, English is the most global, “and yet, wherever it has traveled English has been defined in exclusively national, some might even say chauvinistic terms” (647).

This is the first paradox, then: English is a global language, adopted as a mode of expresssion by peoples who are not English themselves, and thus the English language is in a sense everyone’s language. However, the exclusively nationalist, chauvinistic definition that attends on the term remains, suggesting that only “the English” have the right to claim “English” as a designation for their literature and culture.

The second paradox that Gikandi notes, is that “in the United States, and more recently, in Britain, English departments have come to be perceived as the custodians of globalization in the university; in real terms, however, these institutions tend to consider English literatures other than British and American as secondary to what they consider to be their main task — the teaching of the literature of England (and, sometimes, that of the United States, considered to be an extension of Englishness across the Atlantic)” (647).

I think this is the point that perhaps addresses your question: to speak of Mzobe’s novel as “English” is to speak of a novel that forms part of a global body of literature written in English. The lingering notion of a particularly “English” nationalism that attends on the definition of “English literature” is misleading, then, since English as a global language in fact includes those authors writing in English in places other than England.

Jono87 says:

Hi Mack, glad you found it useful.

Ancient Rites and Counting the Coffins are supremely good, very involving novels, for me much more than just “thrillers”. Diale Thlolwe is a really sharp authorial voice, so do check these two books out.

You will see that Mzobe is grouped under black authors in the piece as well, but is included as “English” in the sense that his work is very much in the mainstream now; he’s very quickly become as well-known as his white counterparts. Also, simply because there are many crime writers, such as Francois Bloemhof, who write their crime fiction exclusively in Afrikaans. Hope that helps.

Enjoy your reading, cheers!

Mack says:

This is an excellent analysis and I thank you for posting it. I’m currently reading The Lazarus Effect and have Ancient Rights on my to-be-read stack. I’ll certainly add Counting the Coffins.

I am curious about one sentence in the post. You include Sifiso Mzobe among English writers. I interpreted English to mean of European descent or white. Why did you include Sifiso Mzobe among those authors?