JAMES McCLURE  (1939-2006)

Noted journalist and mystery writer James McClure died June 17th of a respiratory illness at the age of 66.  Born in Johannesburg, South Africa, but living in England for well over the last half his life, he will be long remembered as the author of the “Kramer and Zondi” police procedural series, groundbreaking in many ways.  The first book, The Steam Pig, was published in 1971 during the peak of the apartheid era in his homeland, and along with the seven that followed, contained a not-so-subtle message to those overseas about the inadequacies of a society split so radically along racial lines.

Lengthier obituaries and biographies can be found online, including those at http://www.buzzle.com/editorials/6-21-2006-100076.asp and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_H._McClure


The following two reviews by Thomas Baird are reprinted from 1001 Midnights: The Aficionado’s Guide to Mystery and Detective Fiction, Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller, editors, Arbor House, 1986.

McClure, James
The Blood of an Englishman.   Harper & Row, 1981.

    James McClure has created an exciting cross-cultural environment with his South African police team of Lieutenant Tromp Kramer, of the Trekkersburg Murder and Robbery Squad, and his assistant, Bantu Detective Sergeant Mickey Zondi.  For an American fan of the crime novel, this is a subgenre of police work in an exotic locale, comparable in some ways to Arthur W. Upfield’s Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte.  Critic Stanley Ellin has commented that one of McClure’s stories is not superimposed against the cultural background but extracted from it.  McClure uses his detectives and their police work to expose the rot at the core of apartheid.  There are antagonisms not only between black and white but between Afrikaners and English, “coloureds” and “kaffirs.”  The South African system provides motives, clues, and myriad complications in all of Kramer’s investigations.  In spite of Kramer’s friendliness and respect for the detective ability of his sidekick, he’s no closet liberal.  Kramer is a product of his culture and merely refrains from abusing his power too much; he quietly rescues his assistant from scrapes, and compliments him when appropriate.

    In The Blood of an Englishman, the motivation for the shooting of an antique dealer and the murder of a visitor from England is not based on apartheid but fulminates from the past, as in a good Ross Macdonald novel.  Tromp Kramer is, as usual, full of half-baked theories and, in his superior’s view, works entirely on his own too often.  In this investigation, he is satisfied when bullets from the two shootings prove that the cases are connected.  Zondi has ideas of his own, but goes off to scrutinize a black whorehouse murder when his theories don’t mesh with Kramer’s.  The reality of the police procedure is presented with all its comic rawness:  One of the characters comments, “This is a white that Lt. Kramer’s making all the fuss about?”  By a process of tough questioning and bluff, the detectives manage to resolve this story of revenge and retribution.  (T. B.)

McClure, James.  Snake.  Harper & Row, 1976.

    Exotic dancer Eve’s sensual act features a five-foot royal python.  When she is discovered in her dressing room dead of strangulation, her dancing partner turns out to be the murder weapon.  And once again Tromp Kramer and Mickey Zondi are thrown into a maelstrom of violence, disorder, and duplicity.

    A second case comes up involving armed robberies and murders in the black township.  The detectives encounter criminal characters and cover-up used by the South African system of apartheid.  Witch doctors, nightclub owners, and Portuguese immigrants are suspected and interrogated.  The culprits are finally collected by the policemen, and Zondi gets to save his white partner’s life in the process.  McClure creates a gripping story that ows deep insight into the lives, both high and low, of individuals living in an apartheid society.  He also pays a bit of homage to crime writers Dick Francis and Ed McBain.

    Snake continues McClure’s ongoing saga of morals and malice that began with his first novel, The Steam Pig (1971), which is concerned with concealed racial origin and won the British Crime Writers Golden Dagger Award.  The other books in the Kramer/Zondi series are The Caterpillar Cop (1972), The Gooseberry Fool (1974), The Sunday Hangman (1977), and The Artful Egg (1985).  McClure’s non-series espionage thriller Rogue Eagle (1976), set in Lesotho (a black area surrounded by South Africa), won the CWA Silver Dagger.   (T.B.)

Copyright © 1986 by Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller.  Reprinted by permission of Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller.      


Crime novels: 

K-Z = The detective team of Afrikaner Lieutenant Tromp Kramer and Zulu Detective Sergeant Mickey Zondi.

The Steam Pig.  Gollancz, hc, UK, 1971.     K-Z.       [Crime Writers Association (CWA) Gold Dagger award, 1971.]
    Harper & Row, hc, 1972.
    Avon, pb, 1974.
    Pantheon, pb, March 1982.  [International Crime series.]
    Penguin, pb, 1982.
    Hodder & Stoughton, pb, UK, 1989.
    Faber & Faber, pb, UK, 1993.

The Caterpillar Cop.  Gollancz, hc, UK, 1972.    K-Z.
    Harper & Row, hc, 1973.
    Penguin, pb, UK, 1974.
    Avon, pb, 1974.
    Pantheon, pb, July 1982.    [International Crime series.]
    Faber & Faber, pb, UK, 1992.

Four and Twenty Virgins.  Gollancz, hc, UK, 1973.      [Set in the savage underworld of the Seventies in England.]
    Thorndike Press, softcover, October 1990.                      

The Gooseberry Fool.  Gollancz, hc, UK, 1974.    K-Z.
    Harper & Row, hc, 1974.
    Avon, pb, 1975.
    Penguin, pb, UK, 1976.
    Pantheon, pb, July 1983.
    Faber & Faber, pb, UK, 1993.

Snake.  Gollancz, hc, UK, 1975.    K-Z.
    Harper & Row, hc, 1976.
    Penguin, pb, UK, 1977.
    Avon, pb, 1977.
    Pantheon, pb, March 1985.
    Faber & Faber, pb, UK, 1993.

Rogue Eagle.  Macmillan, hc, UK, 1976.    Spy novel.     [CWA Silver Dagger award, 1976.]
    Harper & Row, hc, 1976.
    Penguin, pb, UK, 1978.
    Avon 42267, pb, February 1979.

The Sunday Hangman.  Macmillan, hc, UK, 1977.    K-Z.
    Harper & Row, hc, 1977.
    Avon, pb, 1979.
    Pantheon, pb, Februry 1985.

The Blood of an Englishman.  Macmillan, hc, UK, 1980.     K-Z.
    Harper & Row, hc, 1981.
    Pantheon, pb, March 1982.
    Penguin, pb, UK, 1983.

Spike Island: Portrait of a British Police Division.  Macmillan, hc, UK, 1980.     [Novelized true crime.]
    Pantheon, hc, 1980.
    Pan, pb, UK,  1981.
    Dell, pb, August 1986.
    =  Portions of this book appeared previously in the London Sunday Times Magazine, issues unknown.

The Artful Egg.  Macmillan, hc, UK, 1984.    K-Z.
    Pantheon, hc, 1985.
    Pantheon, pb, July 1986.

The Song Dog.  Mysterious Press, US, August 1991.    K-Z.    [This prequel to his Kramer-Zondi series reveals how they first met.]
    Faber & Faber, hc, UK, 1991.
    Warner, pb, August 1992.
    Faber & Faber, pb, UK, 1993.

Other novel-length fiction:

Imago: A Modern Comedy of Manners.  Otto Penzler Books, US, 1988.   
Warner, pb, December 1988.
    = No UK publication.

Criminous short fiction:

“Scandal at Sandkop”  Winter’s Crimes 7, George Hardinge, editor, Macmillan, hc, UK, 1975.

Mystery-related non-fiction:

“A Bright Grey”  Colloquium on Crime: Eleven Renowned Mystery Writers Discuss Their Work, Robin W. Winks, editor, Scribner, 1986, pages 167-188.
    =  The other authors who contributed essays are: Robert Barnard, Rex Burns, K. C. Constantine, Dorothy Salisbury Davis, Michael Gilbert, Donald Hamilton, Joseph Hansen, Tony Hillerman, Reginald Hill, and Robert B. Parker.


From The Steam Pig, 1971:  

    The corner of De Wet Street and the Parade was deserted.  Zondi should have been waiting there for at least an hour – the two calls had taken far longer than Kramer anticipated.  He parked the car and sat.  He needed to think carefully before making his next move.  It would be very rash for a white, even armed, to attempt to follow in Zondi’s footsteps.  On the other hand, he rebelled against the thought of calling in help.  His mind reacted to the dilemma by blanking out.  He was staring across the pavement at the statue of Queen Victoria, which had presumably survived into the Republican era because it was so incredibly gross, when something stirred on the Great White Mother’s lap.  He saw a slim brown hand reach up for a snap-brim hat hung on the sceptre.  Moments later Zondi slid down and strode casually over.

    “No Shoe Shoe,” he said.  “His wheelbarrow is round the back of the City Hall but not one fellow knows where he is.”

    “You asked plenty?”

    “Oh yes, boss.”

    Zondi licked his knuckles.  The wind had gone.  It was very cold and very early in the morning.

    “Get in, I’ll take you home.”
    “How come?  We can go out to Peacehaven, boss.”

    “Not tonight – I’ll explain why.  Move it.”

    As Kramer drove out to Kwela Village, he filled in on all that had happened.  If that was the Colonel’s attitude, then he could not expect them to miss another night’s sleep.  Zondi lived with his wife and three children in a two-roomed concrete house which covered an area of four table-tennis tables and had a floor of stamped earth.  He always had to direct Kramer to it as there were several hundred other identical houses in the township.  All that distinguished his home was a short path edged with upturned condensed-milk cans too rusty to catch the car’s headlights.

    “Go for Gershwin Mkize in the morning,” Kramer instructed him after they had stopped.  “He should know where his merchandise has got to.  Maybe Shoe Shoe’s sick?  I’ve got to see the Colonel and Mr Perkins, then I’ll be in the market square if you’re not back in the office by ten.”

    “Right, boss, see you.”

    Kramer waited with his lights on the door so Zondi would not fumble the key, and then started off down the hill into town again.  Lucky man, that wife of Zondi’s was a good woman with a fine wide pelvis.  Kramer caught himself wondering if it was not time he got lucky; he liked the idea of a loyal woman and he liked children.  But no, he was a man of principle.  It was not fair taking on such a responsibility in his job – you never knew when you might fetch up grinning at Strydom with your stomach.  Anyway, he had found himself a widow with four kids.  She would love a surprise guest.





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