James McClure’s The Caterpillar Cop (first published UK 1972, Sohopress 2010, 264p.) is the second Kramer and Zondi collaboration in a series of eight police procedural novels set in Apartheid’s South Africa, though this entry reads more like a traditional murder mystery. The Caterpillar Cop develops its plot against the backdrop of Apartheid, but shifts the main focus of attention to the repressive sexual attitudes of South African society of that time, in which the Dutch Reformed Church played a decisive role. The handsome, twelve-year-old blond and blue-eyed Boetie Swanepoel of Afrikaner extraction is found in circumstances that suggest a pedophilic act of sexual violence. He has been strangled with mesh wire, stabbed ferociously and emasculated, and is left hanging in the tree branches of a local garden in a compromising position. Yet his involvement in a club of local vigilantes and amateur detectives—the “Junior Gestapo” as the killer has it mockingly (p.258)—complicates simple readings and sheds a different light on the case, drawing out shadier, white-supremacist sides to his personality. In the process of their investigation, Lt. Kramer and his Bantu assistant, Sgt. Zondi, establish a link with the apparently accidental drowning of an American youth in a nearby swimming-pool, whose sexual involvement with the owner’s family has triggered off an unsavoury chain of events. Kramer and Zondi successfully apply their usual racial trespassing techniques to reach the truth, following Kramer’s conviction that “Our job requires us not to make any assumptions based on class, color or religious belief” (p.22), leaving gender out of the equation. Yet working closely together across and along racial borders, they prove that in Apartheid terms, in order to respect the law it has to be broken.
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 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 Afrikaner Lieutenant Tromp Kramer and the 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.