Orford’s challenge to the genre snobs

Gallows Hill by Margie Orford, Jonathan Ball, 2011

This is for the genre snobs. I used to be one of those, too – scornful of literature that does not begin with a capital L. Until May 2007, that is, when Margie Orford approached me to re-edit her first crime novel, Like Clockwork. “Crime thrillers aren’t really my thing, you know”, I snootily said, but she trusted me, and soon afterwards my qualms faded. I flew off the next day, and working from my daughter’s house in London, I was immediately hooked and highly entertained – not only by the challenging collaborative exercise of precise plotting and dodging “plotholes”, but also by the author’s ready wit and responsiveness as we emailed across the ocean, working on the characterisation of a bunch of rof Cape Flats killers and their cop counterparts.

We cut, cut, cut and Margie wrought magic as she rewrote, often in a kind of frenzy, it seemed; “Yes, cut – this is not a zoo,” she said on one occasion in response to a suggestion that there was too much barking, grunting and wailing of various animals. But it was the multivocality that really seduced me – the pacy dialogue, dramatising what Jeremy Cronin has called “the voices of the land”. Since that London summer, I’ve edited two more of Orford’s novels: Daddy’s Girl (2009), and Gallows Hill, which hit the shelves this year. (Blood Rose was first published by Oshun, and later by Jonathan Ball in 2009.) According to publisher Jeremy Boraine, the sales of the Clare Hart series “go from strength to strength”.

So it bugs me a bit when people say to me, “Margie Orford is so witty, she’s so intelligent, why is she writing schlock?” OK, it’s a tired rebuttal, but one that apparently needs to be reiterated: when Shakespeare wrote his plays in 17th century England, and Dickens his serialised novels in the Victorian era, what were the topics, and who were the audiences? Villainy and murder most foul, of course, and the consumer was the common man, the oke in the pub or the saleslady at Woolworths. Like us, the Elizabethans and Victorians lived in times of social upheaval, in a world that was fast becoming globalised; their societies had much in common with post-apartheid South Africa. At the very moment that “the new” is born, it dies, and sometimes it is stillborn, prematurely suffocated by the next “new” on a social landscape that provides neither the space nor the security for ideas and institutions to grow to maturity and stabilise. Our constitutional democracy, which convulsively gasps each day, is a good case in point. It is precisely in times of turbulence that transgression and crime thrive.

Margie Orford knows this, and as a former political detainee and current social activist (she is executive president of SA PEN), her crime novels are canvases where she sketches the social and psychological workings of criminality, and the way it functions in the interstitial spaces of post-apartheid South Africa. A former journalist, much of her experience is first-hand, and she has formed close relationships with the SAPS in Cape Town, where she lives.

Orford has frequently argued that, in crime-ridden South Africa, where perpetrators go unpunished (the conviction rate for murder is 10%), crime fiction offers the opportunity of justice being seen to be done, of closure. In her novels, this is often rough justice, satisfying a desire for revenge, and so the good cop, Riedwaan Faizal, has a deliciously malevolent streak and an appealing disrespect for authority, an instinctive need to privilege morality over legality. The rainbow garb of post-1994 South Africa is in tatters and shreds – or else it wears pimp-purple suits and pointy Gucci shoes. In this context, Orford’s wit is a stiletto that, time and again, finds its mark, for example when the ghoulish Graveyard de Wet and the predatory Voëltjie Ahrend get their comeuppance in Daddy’s Girl.

In Gallows Hill, the bad DNA of apartheid surfaces like a recessive gene, malforming personalities and perverting the present. The baddie is a man called Basson, a name that evokes memories of Dr Wouter Basson, apartheid era head of South Africa’s chemical and biological warfare project. The epigraph of the novel is an apt quote from Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This is true, of course, whether a crime novel is set in South Africa or Sweden. And Deon Meyer, Mike Nicol and a whole slew of new South African crime writers, including Sunday Times Literary Award winner, Sifiso Mzobe, know this.

They probably share Orford’s views on the downward slide in sales of postmodern novels, where the reader “never know(s) if the author will finish the story or … forget the plot”. With panache, Orford promises that crime fiction gives readers what they paid for: “plot, character, action, resolution, some good sex.” Gallows Hill lives up to this promise – she deftly creates a love-triangle too, and as usual, forensic profiler Clare Hart is the clear heart of the action (it did, however, take a little editorial intervention to prevent the traditional love triangle from becoming a somewhat less interesting square, involving the lesbian character Lilith).

Orford’s novels have been translated into nine languages, and Gallows Hill tops the UK Telegraph’s 2011 Christmas Picks list; she was also keynote speaker at a recent literary festival in Melbourne. This is popular fiction, indeed, literature that gives the reader a glimpse into the swirling darkness of South Africa’s political underworld. Like other South African writers, from Alan Paton to JM Coetzee and Ivan Vladislavić, Orford inscribes current debates into her fiction, and post-1994, it’s OK to portray the cops – well, most of them, anyway – as good guys.

The opening scene in Gallows Hill propels the reader into a moment that dramatises the pollution of the present by the past. Orford’s usual themes loiter in the shadows, ready to leap onto the pages – sexual violence, human trafficking, gangs, revenge. But this time, these crimes are shown to have been corporatised in a state where “business and politics have disappeared so far up each other’s backsides that no one can tell them apart any more”. The cop duo of Riedwaan and Clare must deal with a murder that dredges up a cold case whose icy core is apartheid criminality in the 80s, including ivory poaching to fund the bush war, and flooding the Cape Flats with mandrax in an evil urban offensive.

The novel begins with the death of a bergie woman, and the subsequent discovery at Gallows Hill of a graveyard of slave skeletons. But it soon develops into a search for the identity of a white artist/activist murdered in the late 1980s, morphing into a macabre “Desperately Seeking Suzanne” – who is “resurrected” in the character of Lilith, the latter appearing only half-way through the novel and driving the action to the end. As the duo of Riedwaan and Clare pursue the mystery of Suzanne le Roux’s death and Lilith’s strange life, it soon becomes apparent why many critics perceive crime fiction as the new “political novel”.

Eva Afrika is the first character we meet in Gallows Hill. She is a vagrant who, like her mongrel dog, Jennie, litters “a piss-soaked alley between Parliament and the Slave Lodge”. Except that Eva is a kind of aristocrat – her name ironically conjuring up the Hottentot Eve, or Krotoa, a woman reputed to have held status among the Hottentots. At the age of eleven, Krotoa was uprooted from her tribal family in a form of trafficking at the time, becoming part of Jan van Riebeeck’s household; after marrying the surgeon Van Meerhof, she fell victim to alcoholism and prostitution, and died at the age of thirty-two. This woman, Eva/Krotoa, was the stammoeder, the wife of a prominent Dutchman at the Cape, who bore many children, and whom many white South Africans voguishly claim as an ancestor today.

In introducing Eva/Eve, Orford skilfully sketches the history of South Africa: significantly, the Slave Lodge lies at one end, and Parliament at the other end of the stinking alley that Eva calls home. Nearby is a “bronze statue of a Boer general on a warhorse. Botha had his eyes levelled at the Hottentots Holland Mountains, where his people had trekked into South Africa’s harsh hinterland nearly two hundred years before”. Colonial conquest is the original sin in a country where an entire racial category of people became the beneficiaries of a system that refined itself into a machine that committed untold crimes against the Evas, its first, forgotten nation.

The plot thickens, and along the way we’re ambushed by renovated gangsters like Hond Williams and suave, sinister SADF Colonel Jacques Basson. But Orford refuses the simple appeal of stereotypes; her broad and inclusive narrative includes well-meaning Afrikaners like Shorty de Lange, who has fallen victim to an employment policy designed to favour the previously disadvantaged. The policy is all but equitable, as Orford demonstrates, since Riedwaan is sidelined, and a venal elite sporting Breitling watches and bling are the inheritors of a tawdry, shop-worn post-1994 South Africa. The real victims of apartheid are reduced to mere spectator status: wise Sophie Xaba who mourns her dead warrior son, significantly named Scipio, and the Cape Flats youngster who hides a gun from his mother’s boyfriend because “[l]ast time when he was drunk, he had a brick. So he couldn’t kill her properly.”

A master of gallows humour, Orford’s metier is a noir, dystopian world peopled by thugs who seem to have leapt from the front pages of our newspapers. But in the end, like Clare, the reader is drawn “back from the edge” (of our despair) as we witness in Gallows Hill the plunge of at least one villain to his death on Signal Hill. And this is the sheer delight of an Orford novel – for a moment, at least, justice is done, we’re avenged, and the world seems a safer and better place. Orford’s brand of crime fiction would delight a Sir Philip Sidney as well as a Horace – and it would teach them a few things, too.


Lynda Gilfillan says:

I’m unable to attend, unfortunately. But I”d love to know what your findings are, Chris. If possible, please publish.

Chris Warnes says:

Thanks for the useful comments on this thread. I’ve been doing some serious thinking about the question of popular fiction in postapartheid South Africa for about a year now, and I’m presenting some of my findings to the English Department seminar at Stellenbosch on Thursday 9 Feb at 12 noon. Please come along! Chris

Jo says:

Are you the Kavish that wrote the Bullard review in the Cape Times? There’s another interesting debate going on, around intellectaul reviews as opposed to more accessible reviews of popular books.

Penny says:

I was trying to figure out why I like crime fiction so much. It is definitely not Orford’s proposed reason of justice being seen to be done or of closure. One thing is the criminal mind, the mind of psychopaths or disturbed people. I am fascinated in the underlying reasons for deviant behaviour. Crime fiction explores this quite well and many authors research their topic fairly thoroughly. In contemporary crime fiction, I enjoy finding out the latest scientific and psychological theories in a fictional setting. 

The other aspect I enjoy is finding out how different cities and countries function with respect to law and order, social mores etc. This I also get from literary fiction but the combination of the hunt, the unravelling of the mystery and the contemporary context attracts me. Many good writers venture into territory that might be called crime fiction as is well known. Take William Boyd, one of my favourite writers, and his novel Ordinary Thunderstorms; it has all the elements of crime fiction but better written than most.

Maybe it is just my ‘guilty vice’. At the same time, I am quite selective about which crime fiction writers I read so don’t endorse the whole genre. I’m even a snob about crime…


Lucy Graham says:

ummm sounds like we all need to (re-)read Tzvetan Todorov, and maybe Lacan and Derrida on Poe’s Purloined Letter… there’s often more to crime fiction than meets the eye, Poe being a case in point. BTW The Murders in the Rue Morgue is hilariously gory as well as supposedly the first detective story in English. The murderer turns out to be a massive escaped oraguntan who is trying to imitate a barber and slits a woman’s throat with a razor by accident:

“The apartment was in the wildest disorder –the furniture broken and thrown about in all directions. There was only one bedstead; and from this the bed had been removed, and thrown into the middle of the floor. On a chair lay a razor, besmeared with blood. On the hearth were two or three long and thick tresses of grey human hair, also dabbled in blood, and seeming to have been pulled out by the roots. Upon the floor were found four Napoleons, an ear-ring of topaz, three large silver spoons, three smaller of metal d’Alger, and two bags, containing nearly four thousand francs in gold. The drawers of a bureau, which stood in one corner, were open, and had been, apparently, rifled, although many articles still remained in them. A small iron safe was discovered under the bed (not under the bedstead). It was open, with the key still in the door. It had no contents beyond a few old letters, and other papers of little consequence.

“Of Madame L’Espanaye no traces were here seen; but an unusual quantity of soot being observed in the fire-place, a search was made in the chimney, and (horrible to relate!) the corpse of the daughter, head downward, was dragged therefrom; it having been thus forced up the narrow aperture for a considerable distance. The body was quite warm. Upon examining it, many excoriations were perceived, no doubt occasioned by the violence with which it had been thrust up and disengaged. Upon the face were many severe scratches, and, upon the throat, dark bruises, and deep indentations of finger nails, as if the deceased had been throttled to death.

“After a thorough investigation of every portion of the house, without farther discovery, the party made its way into a small paved yard in the rear of the building, where lay the corpse of the old lady, with her throat so entirely cut that, upon an attempt to raise her, the head fell off. The body, as well as the head, was fearfully mutilated –the former so much so as scarcely to retain any semblance of humanity.

“To this horrible mystery there is not as yet, we believe, the slightest clew.”

Penny says:

I think Trackers by Deon Meyer and Lost Ground by Michiel Heyns are both ‘fairly complex about their territories’. In Trackers, Deon Meyer employs some narrative techniques we are more accustomed to finding in literary fiction and in Lost Ground, Michiel Heyns is witty, reflective and his use of lamguage is superb.

I can also think of quite a few excellent examples of works that may not necessarily be regarded as crime fiction but certainly reference the genre. Think Paul Auster, Dostoevsky and a gem such as The Athenian Murders by Jose Carlos Somoza. Some crime fiction writers have wonderful characters such as Fred Vargas’ Jean Baptister Adamsberg who’s rich interior life is a delight to read.

Those who haven’t sampled these novels should perhaps not write crime fiction off too readily.

But then I’m just a reader

Jono87 says:

I have been following this debate with some interest, and hope to offer a companion piece/response to Lynda’s review and the subsequent debate soon. I’m hoping that it will have further reaction and spark some more interesting responses such as the above.

Name says:

Touche re: q. 2.

Kavish says:


Well, this is really why I asked the question. I’ll chance a vulnerable position with this comment: crime-fiction employs history and politics as largely incidental to its narrative. It can run those things through its assembly line, and ultimately use them as mere conduits to a fantasy catharsis. Your observation about a (suggested) absence of pity or complicity is a brilliant example. I have yet to read local crime-fiction that was complex about its territory. I have yet to watch local crime-genre cinema (recently, How to Steal Million; 31 Million Reasons) that wasn’t just a tourist circuit through a bunch of American cliches.

The catharsis thing might be enjoyable – thrilling, whatever – but there’s nothing particularly admirable or sophisticated about it. Thing is this: these reactionary defences of crime-fiction are not proving their point very well. The appear to me, motivated by relatively intelligent people wanting to a) not admit that crime fiction is just their guilty vice and b) wanting to, instead, redeem themselves by redeeming the whole genre, ie: “No, it’s not a weakness, this stuff is actually provocative, bru.”

I hardly think the “academic apprehensions” and “public discourse” question was misplaced – this portal is hosted by a University English dept. after all. I asked the question, though, because I am aware – if only obliquely – that there are comprehensive academic surveys of crime fiction out there. I think Siegfried Kracauer wrote some. I know John Higgins at UCT has an interest in the genre. But that’s why it’s worth looking at the disjuncture between the academics who manage to wring redemptive value from a genre, and the public who employ that genre as little beyond entertainment.

I would think that the definitive quality of crime-fiction is the “genericising” or “linearising” of any signifier that comes its way, into a recognisable, predictable format. I don’t have a problem with crime fiction up until it has aspirations beyond its means. Genre-snob out.

Name says:

@Kavish: ‘A fascinating question to ask in my opinion, is “in what ways is genre-fiction recieved by its target audience?” and “what is the nature of the gulf between academic apprehensions of the genre-novel, and the way it circulates in public discourse?”’

I believe that Gilfillan addresses the first fascination when she observes that ‘Orford has frequently argued that, in crime-ridden South Africa, where perpetrators go unpunished (the conviction rate for murder is 10%), crime fiction offers the opportunity of justice being seen to be done, of closure.’

Aristotelian catharsis? Almost, but no: this is fear without pity; the pity gets lost (if the summary of the novel is to be believed) in a rain-forest of cliche and silly names, which seems, well, a pity.

As for the second fascination, the one about ‘academic apprehensions’ and ‘public discourse’ … talk about niche-market.

Kavish says:

Hi Lynda,

Just a few inconclusive (general) remarks in passing:

1. I don’t think crime fiction can be redeemed through reference to Dickens. It strikes me that the populist fiction of the Victorian era was written in a cultural mainframe so different to our own – before the rise of consumer capital, the valorisation of the Kardashians – as to make a redemptive appeal of that sort not quite apt.

2. When you write that crime fiction is set in rich contexts of social upheaval, I’d reply that environment is equally not a strict redeeming marker. Its treatment would be. I’m rather fond of referencing Rambo IV whenever this argument comes up. It was set during the 2007 Burmese crisis, but these events functioned in the film as politically evacuated grist; another in a long lineage of third-world exoticisations for the benefit of middle-class entertainment. This is a danger I detect in most of the crime fiction I’ve glanced through (Nicol, Lotz). I don’t accuse Orford of it, as I haven’t read her book. (and to be fair, I’ve only heard positive things) My points is that “genre-snobs”, if your argument is correct, won’t encounter Orford as emblematic of the genre.

The reason “genre-snobs” have an issue with genre, is precisely because of its being generic. Crime fiction for example draws on a handful of reiterative tropes (they surface in almost every novel). It has a circumscribed set of conventions to work with which necessarily leaves much on the peripheries of its vision. Often the insights (sociopolitical, existential) generated by this fiction do not transcend the most banal of platitudes: they are written with a grim surrender to a corrupt Africa. I don’t think there can be any argument whatsoever that crime fiction can meet DeLillo, Roth, Franzen for writing that is cognitive, embodied, questing.

3. But the reason I can make a statement like that is because I have a personal idea of what “great literature” is constituted by, and in the aftermath of cultural critics like Williams and Hall (even Eagleton, et al.), it’s difficult to understand “greatness” as anything other than a contingent set of values which serve a particular interest/power. This debate as to whether “genre-fiction” can enter the “canon” is dead on arrival, because it’s stuck in a deadlock of irreconcilable premises. “Plot, character, action, resolution, some good sex” would immediately sound – to the targeted genre-snob – like your average episode of 24. A fascinating question to ask in my opinion, is “in what ways is genre-fiction recieved by its target audience?” and “what is the nature of the gulf between academic apprehensions of the genre-novel, and the way it circulates in public discourse?” I ask this because the themes you suggest Gallows Hill explores (and I’m not immune to the idea that they are excellently dramatised) sound like things I’ve heard a thousand times before – themes that have been explored both within and without crime-fiction, in the former case always taking place within the broad collision of a very familiar and curtailed set of circumstances.

But yeah, I like your write-up and Orford’s one sounds a great deal more provocative than the average pulp thriller. I’m looking forward to reading it and seeing if it manages to contradict the rest of its species.

Penny says:

Incisively written review, whetted my appetite for the
latest Orford. Another aspect I enjoy about well written crime fiction from all countries is the placing of mystery in a contemporary context. Trying to figure out who did what while also being exposed to how things work behind the scenes engages the mind. I love the intrigue, the relationships, the probing of character’s psychological issues. Despite loving literature with a Capital L, I equally enjoy crime fiction as long as it is not predictable. Happy you’re a convert, Lynda.