James McClure’s The Sunday Hangman (first published by Sabensa Gakula 1977; Soho Press NY 2011, 264 p.) is the fifth Kramer and Zondi collaboration in a series of eight police procedural novels set in Apartheid’s South Africa. In this novel, the Afrikaner police officer Tromp Kramer and his Bantu assistant Mickey Zondi are confronted with a self-appointed executioner who kills his victims with the skills of a professional hangman. The case is triggered off when Tollie Erasmus is discovered murdered in cold blood and sees Kramer acting solo most of the time as Zondie has been wounded in the leg in gun fight, though the finale reunites the duo in joint action to capture the maddened vigilante who has assumed the right to dispense justice outside the courts of law after a severe personal loss. It takes Kramer considerable time and effort to put the pieces of this complex criminal puzzle together, but matters become clearer after a series of seemingly unrelated but similar executions in the area of Witklip are compared and contrasted by the forensic pathologists on his team. The action is spiced with the usual snappy dialogue, innuendo and mutual respect between Kramer and Zondie against the backdrop of South Africa’s system of Apartheid.
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.