Crime fiction has come a long way. A 100 years ago, if a character in a crime novel had dark skin, a hooked nose, differently-shaped eyes, or even just an accent, it was a known signifier of villainy. These tropes were recognised and accepted by readers and writers alike.
It must have made writers’ lives very easy. If you wanted to suggest that a female character was promiscuous, you gave her a French accent and described her as “purring”. If you wanted to suggest that she was a spy, you gave her a Russian accent and described her as “slinking”.
In that notorious early Tintin book, Tintin in the Congo, Hergé used blackness to signify everything from stupidity and villainy to laziness and cannibalism.
The real laziness, of course, lay with the writers for relying on these vicious old stereotypes. Fortunately, the world became a more enlightened place and it swiftly became both morally and commercially unviable to use simple “otherness” to signify evil. This sensitivity became so acute that from the 1980s onwards it is difficult to find a black villain anywhere in crime fiction at all.
Black characters often occupy roles of low-level villainy as thugs, or “muscle” or “gangbangers”, but the plum parts inevitably go to the white characters. The arch-baddies, the baddies in charge of all the other bad guys, are generally white. The rapists, slashers and juicy serial killers also almost always turn out to be white.
There is a long-running joke in literary circles that the black guy never makes it past chapter 10 of the book, or the second reel of the movie. He is always the cannon-fodder – the guy who will buy it first when the aliens start blasting. Remember when a team of officers would beam down to the unknown planet in the original Star Trek? If there was a black guy among them you always wanted to shout at him: “Quick! Get out of the transporter. Stay on the ship. If you go down there, the aliens are going to vaporise you first!”
It is a similar patronising mind-set that gives all the juicy bad-guy roles to white characters and reserves the low-level muscle roles for black characters.
But it’s not only that. In a world in which black communities are disproportionally affected by poverty and urban blight, they are also disproportionally affected by crime. It is widely recognised that the vast majority of crime is bred by hunger and desperation rather than by some kind of “inherent” evil.
Many modern crime writers carry this awareness around with them and are therefore sensitive about making their villains black. It is much easier and less controversial to make your baddie a truly loathsome white guy who is possessed of a satanic kind of “innate” evil that is easy to hate.
One can understand and sympathise with this impulse, but there is no doubt that it is artificial. Race relations need to be normalised in crime fiction almost as badly as they do in real life.
It is heartening, therefore, to know that South African crime writers are leading the pack when it comes to creating believable black villains. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is our black writers who have been most successful in this regard.
In Red Ink, Angela Makholwa creates a truly chilling black serial killer and his even more evil associates. In the multiaward-winning Young Blood, Sifiso Mzobe’s 17-year-old narrator Sipho falls in with a desperate set of township villains that eventually scare him back to the education he starts off despising.
More recently, Diale Tlholwe’s Counting the Coffins (which has just been awarded the K Sello Duiker Memorial Literary Award for a novel written in English) features a private eye, Thabang Maje, wading through a cesspool of bad guys bent on defrauding investors of their savings.
Our white crime writers are also overcoming their natural squeamishness to create some memorable black villains. Of her five crime novels, Jassy Mackenzie has written two – Worst Case and Stolen Lives that feature black criminal masterminds.
Mike Nicol says there is “a range of serious black baddies who call the shots throughout my revenge trilogy, including the uber-baddy Sheemina February who of course is not a man but a woman”. He also lists Margie Orford, Roger Smith, Margaret von Klemperer, Richard Kunzmann, Wessel Ebersohn and Deon Meyer as SA crime writers who have featured some formidable black villains.
This trend can only be a positive one. It is good to see that our local crime writers are leading the way along the problematic path of normalising how black characters are portrayed in fiction.