The Song Dog (1991) is James McClure’s eighth and last novel in the Kramer and Zondi series of South-African police procedurals, but is in fact conceived of as its prequel, explaining how the white Afrikaner Lieutenant Tromp Kramer and black Bantu detective Michael Zondi first meet and start their efficient collaboration across racial boundaries. Kramer also makes his acquaintance with the Widow Fourie by taking a room in her house, which almost immediately leads to their long-lasting affair. This last novel introduces Kramer when he has just been promoted to lieutenant and transferred to Trekkersburg, the fictional rendering of Johannesburg where all action of the series is to take place. A professional still moving upward in the ranks of the police force, he is ordered to investigate what appears a case of minor importance in a local small farming town involving the deaths of a stalking detective sergeant and the promiscuous young white wife of a forest ranger, both killed by what seems to have been a time bomb. In his effort to solve the case Kramer discovers a whole series of accidental deaths occasioned in too short a time span to make them coincidental, and it is at this stage Kramer starts working with Zondi, who happens to be in the area investigating a black gang rape and murder of four nuns. Eventually, the investigation leads up to a love-sick local police officer, who is gunned down and killed by Zondi, which saves Kramer from imminent death and signs their bonding across Apartheid’s formidable racial barriers.
The effect of closure to the series is enhanced by the novel’s end, when a Zulu priestess, the ‘Song Dog’, predicts their death in what has become known as necklace murders—the horrible practice of summary execution and torture carried out in black townships by forcing a rubber tire, filled with gasoline, around a victim’s chest and arms, and setting it on fire. The image conjured up in Michael Zondi’s recollection of the priestess’s words is unequivocal: “the Song Dog also warned that one far-off night, Lieutenant, you and me would stand alone together, arm in arm in a black township, wearing red necklaces as bright as petrol flames, on the orders of the self-same – ” (281). Written at the brink of a new era—South Africa did away with Apartheid and chose Nelson Mandela as the first (black) president in democracy in the early 1990s—The Song Dog announces a sense of doom over Kramer and Zondi’s fate that belies and questions the success of their professional relationship, suggesting that McClure is doubtful of South-Africa’s interracial future; yet the author may also suggest that, although long-effective, Kramer and Zondi’s working relationship informed by racial inequality belongs to the past, and new forms of interethnic collaboration should be put into place.
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.