Skip to main content

Review of Sabine Binder - Women and Crime in Post-Transitional South African Crime Fiction: A Study of Female Victims, Perpetrators and Detectives


By Christine Matzke

Sabine Binder, Women and Crime in Post-Transitional South African Crime Fiction: A Study of Female Victims, Perpetrators and Detectives. Costerus New Series 230. Brill/Rodopi, 2020. Open Access, 978-90-04-43744-9. Hardback, € 99,00/$ 120,00, 978-90-04-43743-2, pp. 244.

Women in Crime in Post-Transitional South African Crime Fiction book coverFollowing Leon de Kock’s Losing the Plot: Crime, Reality and Fiction in Postapartheid Writing (2016) and Sam Naidu’s and Elizabeth le Roux’s A Survey of South African Crime Fiction (2017), Sabine Binder’s investigation into women and crime in post-transitional literature is the third book-length study on South African crime fiction to come out in recent years. While the beginning of the genre dates back to the late nineteenth century – predominately, but not exclusively, written in English and initially published abroad – readers had to wait until the turn of the millennium to witness an unprecedented rise in local crime writing. This is where Binder’s study enters the stage. The reasons are at least twofold, and not necessarily attributable to the genre’s general global boom.

For one, following the transition to democracy in 1994, South Africa went through an intense historical, moral and judicial period of soul-searching about apartheid crimes in the form of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which did not necessarily bring about a sense of justice for the injured parties involved. Unpalatable truths were uncovered, but confessors walked free. Crime fiction suddenly appeared to fill some of the gaps left open by the TRC. Soon there was talk of the genre emerging as the "new political novel" (9), "assuming an almost seismographic quality and continuing the political engagement" (1) long characteristic of South African writing. Secondly, the alarming level of violence against women in the country led some writers to make a decided turn to the genre to address different forms of gender conflict and inequality. Binder goes so far as to talk of crime fiction’s "mimetic reflections of gender and racial dynamics" (2) against the double backdrop of colonial and apartheid legacies and the ongoing processes of post-transitional transformation. While a mimetic reading of crime fictions might initially appear somewhat dated and limiting, there is no doubt that many South African writers and critics have made an explicit link between a perceived ‘real’ of the country’s present-day and the search for a ‘true’ in post-apartheid literature. Can literature indeed change the way we see, perceive and (re-)act to the world? Can crime fiction help produce a new social order, or at least bring about an alternative sense of justice? To turn to Binder’s central research question: ‘Can a genre that depends on crime and violence be a platform for debate about those issues, if not a means of political opposition to them?’ (221). In three major chapters, framed by an introduction and a conclusion, she sets out to convince us.

True to its title, Women and Crime centres on the analysis of three eponymous character types in recent South African crime novels: the female victim (chapter 1), the female perpetrator (chapter 2) and the female detective (chapter 3). All three chapters follow a strictly similar pattern: an ‘Introduction’ to, and theoretical framing of, the respective character type (section 1); readings of three different authors and their work(s) (sections 2-4), followed by a ‘Conclusion’ (section 5) which neatly sums up the findings. This neatness is a strength of the book as it helps readers navigate the study, even if occasionally reminiscent of the PhD thesis from which it emerged (front matter). Binder offers what she calls ‘a cross-cultural perspective’ (6), a viewpoint from Europe deeply influenced by a full year of living and studying in South Africa. There is much to be said for research that involves a ‘deep hanging out’, especially in literature where ‘field work’ of this kind is rather uncommon. Binder addresses an impressive plethora of writers and works. In ‘Victims’ she reads Penny Lorimer’s stand-alone Finders Weepers (2014), Malla Nunn’s Blessed are the Dead (2012) – the third of her four historical Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper novels set in the 1950s – and Margie Orford’s five-volume Clare Hart Series (2007-2013). In ‘Perpetrators’ Mike Nicol’s Revenge Trilogy (2009-2011) is being discussed, together with Jassy Mackenzie’s five-volume Jade de Jong series (2008-2017) and Angela Makholva’s quirky Black Widow Society (2013). Finally, in ‘Detectives’, Binder turns to the police procedurals by Michéle Rowe featuring Detective Constable Persy Jonas (2013, 2015), H. J. Golakai’s Vee Johnson novels (2011, 2015), and Charlotte Otter’s Maggie Cloete series (2014, 2016). Again, we can see a clear pattern emerging. Each section examines two white writers and one author of colour, all of them women with the exception of Mike Nicol, a white male and central figure in the promotion of post-transitional crime fiction through the now discontinued Crime Beat blog. While Binder does identify her selection of authors in terms of gender and race, she does not really qualify her choice; only that they are South Africa citizens, residents or diasporic voices, and that they write in English (4). This is a little baffling, given the obviously careful racial balance as set out above. While race is a constant feature in the discussion of character construction and social context – which comes as no surprise in the framework of South Africa – there is little in terms of situating, and reflecting on, the prevalent whiteness of the genre. White authors dominate the South African crime fiction scene, especially in English and Afrikaans, but whether this too relates to the structural inequalities and discrimination Binder frequently discusses in the novels, is left unexplored. (There is certainly no shortage of black and other writers of colour in South Africa.)

The authors’ own gender, on the other hand, seems to play no role in her choice of texts; if anything she has chosen writers known for their implicit or explicit gender activism. Orford, Makholva or Otter are some such examples. Nicol might initially stand out like a sore thumb in a virtually all-women-authored corpus of texts, but the focus is on the gender of the protagonist, not the writer, in combination with the identified character types of female victim, perpetrator or investigator. Binder reads these representations against a general gendered taxonomy of crime fiction that is firmly rooted in a cis heteronormative male-female binary she also sees reflected in South African reality. Avid crime fiction readers are obviously aware of the instabilities of such categories across the genre’s history, and the transgressive possibilities they might contain.

Binder starts from a fairly rigid character classification that she gradually reads against the grain. Chapter 1, for example, opens with the premise that "[t]raditionally, the role of victim is ascribed to women" (23), yet Binder is fully aware of the inherent danger of calcifying longstanding stereotypes of their "invisibility, passivity, subordination and inferiority" (24), especially for women of colour. Instead, she analyses how gender violence in crime fiction can be represented in an "ethical" and "gender-revisionist" (22) way that allows the victim "agency" and, drawing on “postcolonial literary trauma theory” (25), also pays attention to the structural violence that often underlies the individual attack. This, for example, is the case in Finder’s Weepers. Set in a "once-illustrious mission school" (28) in the underprivileged Eastern Cape, the novel highlights the fierce inequities of South African state education rooted in "the apartheid legacy of Bantu education" (35), but also in the debilitating power hierarchies of present-day teachers’ unions. Orford’s popular Clare Hart series, on the other hand, occasionally portrays the victim in a sexualised, hyper-spectacular moment of victimhood, which ultimately seems antagonistic to the author’s feminist-activist project.

Chapter 2 starts with a genealogy of female perpetrators in crime fiction of the Global North – femme fatales, victim-avengers (including rape survivors) and other characters performing (counter-)violence – and their reception in European feminist readings. These figures have often been read as morally and socially deviant, but also as empowering for women readers, even if defying ‘interpretative containment’ (76). This is set against the regular pathologising of real-life female perpetrators in South Africa as "mad, bad or sad" (80) and thus seen as lacking genuine agency. Binder introduces the (female) vigilante into this picture, a figure in fiction and actuality who, according to Jean and John Comaroff, carries out ‘“sovereign violence” or "[i]nformal justice" (80), thus filling a vacuum left by a weakened, incompetent state. Mackenzie’s tough white private investigator Jade de Jong fits this picture, as do Makholva’s multi-racial Black Widows, even if they hire a male assassin to do the dirty work. Similar to Nicol’s mixed-race avenging femme fatale Sheemina February, the latter embark from a "place of victimhood", but unlike February who ultimately perpetuates racist and misogynist stereotypes, they soon "transcend this position" (80). By doing so, they point towards the failings of the state apparatus to bring about justice for women, no matter which creed or colour.

The vigilante figure is indeed an interesting character type to be analysed in South African crime fiction, not only in its female versions. (Deon Meyer’s Proteus [engl.: Heart of the Hunter] male protagonist Thobela Mpayipheli, for example, turns vigilante in Infanta [Devil’s Peak] to avenge crimes against children, before retiring to a quiet life in Prooi [The Last Hunt].) Binder does well to focus on this category, especially since there are overlaps with the female detective figure she discusses later. However, I am a little unsure about the concept of ‘“violent female masculinity”’ (81) she develops, and continues to employ, as the theoretical underpinning for her subsequent readings. Drawing on Judith (now: Jack) Halberstam’s Female Masculinity (1998) and Serena Dankwa’s notion of "situational masculinity" (2009), "violent female masculinity" for Binder denotes a particular form of gender performance that allows women to produce a power position of 'masculinity' "through violent criminal behaviour" (82). If victimhood is connoted as ‘female’ (see chapter 1), she reasons that "assertions of power have long been connected to assertions of masculinity" (76). Hence, "performing the male role of the killer is a way in which these female figures can move to a place of power" (76). But is violence automatically gendered ‘masculine’? Is the role of the murderer inevitably ‘male’? At the beginning of Fatal Females (2004) a true crime survey of female killers in South Africa, former police profiler Micki Pistorius notes that "[t]hroughout history the opinion seems to have prevailed that women are not inclined to commit violent crimes. But there is no real basis for this opinion" (Pistorius 1). Rather than resorting to notions of binary gender performance, can we find modes of reading violence in female characters – and ultimately their claim for power and dominance – that are nonbinary or, at least, seen as part of the protagonists’ ‘femininity’ if they self-identify as women?

If we widened Binder’s reading of Otter’s investigative journalist Maggie Cloete in chapter 3, for example, then ‘doing violence’, ‘[d]oing rage', as well as 'doing detection’, would no longer be her way of “doing masculinity” (Binder 192) but simply her way of "doing gender’" This, then, could include any type of gendered articulation and embodiment, and sexual orientation, of the respective character and would ultimately be more empowering for (female) protagonists and readers than associating strategies of power with ‘masculinity’. The vigilante-detective Jade de Jong seems an ideal case in point. Through her transgressive sexuality, gender performance and modes of investigation, she becomes the embodiment of "multiplicities" (101), rather than conventional gender binaries. Binder’s theoretical framework is a useful stepping-stone towards reading female character types determined to extend the scope of gender norms and agency assigned to them by their environment. However, it also invites us to go beyond longstanding categories and open crime fiction analysis to a greater queering.

Binder has offered us a thought-provoking study on women and crime in post-transitional South Africa which will surely broaden the debate. Thanks to Open Access publishing, her research will be more easily available across global crime fiction communities, especially in contexts where European academic pricing policies are prohibitive. Once again, Binder has demonstrated the transgressive potential of the genre, its importance for meaning-making and its inherent possibility to refigure gender, violence and power within a popular South African imaginary. Through her careful and detailed readings, I have gained greater insights into more ethical representational strategies for female victims, but also into "the precarious ethics of investigative work for a woman" (220) and her perilous position in a context largely informed by various forms of patriarchy. The novels under discussion can help us recognise how power works and on whom, from decidedly woman-centred perspectives. Binder convincingly demonstrates that a genre which "depends on crime and violence" can "be a platform for debate about those issues", and that South African crime fiction in particular provides a space for alternative understandings of justice. Whether it can also have a "potential impact on the real social world" (218), is yet to be looked at more carefully. I am still hesitant to fully subscribe to the idea; and in any case, we are all familiar with the worn-out question of how to measure ‘impact’ in the humanities.

Like any good enquiry, Binder has also left me with further questions. If we consider crime fiction as part of South African knowledge production, future studies might want to extend Naidu and LeRoux’s investigation into marketing and readership; by whom, where and to which end is crime writing being consumed, how is it packaged and to whom is it being addressed? We might also want to ask to which extent the genre is still imbricated in a predominately white patriarchal Euro-American-centric episteme, despite all the genre-bending and transformation that has been going on in African crime fiction over the past decades. At a time when South Africa is experiencing multiple decolonial turns, local crime fiction appears to have passed its current publishing peak. Is this a coincidence or can we detect correlations? Binder has moreover rekindled my curiosity about the relations between South African crime narratives and others of the Global South, especially those with transcontinental African or transnational diasporic connections. Golakai’s mixed-race Liberian investigator with a white South African sidekick – one heterosexual, one lesbian – already points that way. There is still a lot to be done by armchair detective scholars around the world. The game is still on.

Works cited

Pistorius, Micki. Fatal Females: Women Who Kill. Penguin Books (South Africa), 2004

Article Categories: