James McClure’s The Artful Egg (first published by Sabensa Gakulu 1984; Soho Press NY 2013, 316 p.) is the seventh Kramer and Zondi collaboration in a series of eight police procedural novels set in Apartheid’s South Africa. In this novel, set in the late-Apartheid years of the 1980s, the Afrikaner police officer Tromp Kramer and his Bantu assistant Mickey Zondi have to solve the murder of Naomi Stride, a wealthy woman whose death has left several people much richer, not least her twenty-six-year-old son Theo, with whom she had long had bitter differences over money. A controversial woman writer whose novels had been banned in South Africa, it is unclear whether she was killed for money, politics, or some other unknown reason, her naked corpse being strewn with flowers and herbs. These are the questions Kramer and Zondi are confronted with but result much harder to answer when Kramer is unexpectedly taken off the case. Ordered by his superiors to discreetly wrap up a fatal accident that could be embarrassing for the South African police, he is plunged into a second investigation, and fighting to keep it free of political whitewash, he and Zondi find themselves moving inexorably toward a haunting and horrifying climax.
In the early 1970s, James McClure developed one of the most successful detective partnerships in South African crime fiction in a series which features 8 novels written over two decades unveiling to national and international readership the harsh realities of Apartheid—the institutionalised social, political, economic and geographical segregation of ethnic groups according to artificial racial definition. The personal and professional dynamics between the rather blunt but effective Afrikaner Lieutenant Tromp Kramer and the subtle, highly intelligent Zulu detective sergeant Mickey Zondi play out in the limits of the socially admissible under Apartheid, but they are, as investigation after investigation proves, the key to the successful resolution of a wide range of murder cases. As Kramer states in The Caterpillar Cop, “Our job requires us not to make any assumptions based on class, color or religious belief” (1972: 22), thus confirming that, though self-critical, theirs is definitely a male world. The dry humour that permeates their disentangling of all sorts of criminal plots and ploys provides the necessary distance for the reader to recognise the structural ambiguities in McClure’s description of Apartheid, and to wonder to what extent it confirms or subverts racism.