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  • Written by James McClure
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  • Written by James McClure
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A Kramer and Zondi Investigation Set in South Africa

Written by James McClureAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by James McClure

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List Price: $14.00

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On Sale: June 14, 2011
Pages: | ISBN: 978-1-56947-944-5
Published by : Soho Crime Soho Press
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Hugo Swart, faithful churchgoer and respected citizen, is found stabbed to death on the floor of his kitchen just before Christmas, on the hottest night of the year. If Mr. Swart's Reverend is to be believed, no one in the world could have a reason to kill him; the murder was most likely a robbery gone ugly, and the chief suspect is Swart's black servant, Shabalala, who has fled to the countryside. But Lieutenant Kramer suspects that not everything is as it seems. While Zondi pursues Shabalala in what turns out to be a treacherous tour of miserable outlying Bantu villages, Kramer tries to wring the truth out of some of Swart's acquaintances in Trekkersburg and Cape Town—it seems not everyone liked the victim quite as much as the Reverend did. But danger lies at every turn—what will this investigation cost the duo?

McClure's merciless depiction of 1970s South Africa, its many layers of racism, and the gaps between rich and poor make this perhaps the most devourable book in the Kramer and Zondi series yet.

Excerpt

1

HUGO SWART ENTERED purgatory just after nine o’clock
on the hottest night of the year. It came as a complete surprise
to him, as it did to his several acquaintances, who, knowing
him for a pious young bachelor, were unable to reconcile this
with the thought of his brutal murder.

His surprise, however, was of a different order—owing
nothing to assumption and everything to sudden agony as real
as the improvised weapon with which it was inflicted. And in
his final flare of consciousness, he acknowledged an inexplicable
oversight.

This had been to presume that once inside his house, with
the front door bolted and the back door locked, he was alone.
He really should have considered the possibility of an intruder
stealing in while he was away at Mass. Even just made the
routine check carried out by any householder upon arrival
home, let alone a man in his circumstances. Then he might
have noticed a shadow flinch as he tossed his Missal across the
darkened study onto his desk. But he did not. Nor did he actually
go into the study, pausing only at the door.

Instead, with much that was pleasing on his mind, he went
straight on through to the kitchen, humming to himself. His
African servant had left the light burning in the ceiling and
his dinner burning in the oven. The sharp smell of the ruined
steak registered immediately, yet the only thought he gave to
it was to switch off the stove. Thirst, rather than hunger, was
his dominant drive.

He opened the refrigerator door and found everything he
needed for a long, very cold drink. Vodka was his choice, for
he believed it left the breath untainted—vodka and orange
and plenty of ice. The simple procedure totally absorbed him.
He measured out the spirit first, returning the bottle to its
hiding place in the vegetable tray. Next came two fingers
of fruit juice from a can, then three ice cubes, and finally a
topping of chilled water. Instantly the tall glass frosted over
and droplets began to wriggle down its thin sides. For it to
be really cold, however, he had to wait until the ice did a
little of its work.

So he turned on the radio over by the kettle and caught the
news bulletin. December 23 had been the hottest day of the
year, according to the South African Weather Bureau, which
was not news to anyone. But they were right in making the
heat wave the first item; there was an undeniable satisfaction
in being part of the news oneself for a change, to know
precisely how severe an ordeal it had been, to feel—however
modestly—a survivor.

On every level, survival was dear to Hugo Swart, as it is to
any man who anticipates a bright new future.

The idiot kettle began to boil. He thought at first that the
sound, an odd wheeze, came from behind him, then noticed
the air shimmering above the spout—it was altogether too
hot and humid for steam to show. Of course. The kettle
and the radio shared the same wall socket; switching them
both on at once was a mistake he had made many times. And
sure enough, after a moment’s silence, the kettle gurgled
and threatened to melt its element if more water was not
swiftly added. That damn black baboon never left the thing
properly filled. All it needed, though, was a sharp tug on
the cord.

He gave it one and then took off his lightweight jacket,
wishing he had done so ten minutes earlier, and dumped it on
the drain-board.

By now the main news was over and the regional summary
under way. It disclosed that the maximum temperature
in Trekkersburg itself had soared to a record 112 degrees
Fahrenheit.

“In the shade,” the announcer added.

To which Hugo Swart, impatient with such pedantry,
retorted aloud, “Jesus wept!”

His last words.

He dithered for a moment over his drink, then decided to
increase the pleasure by prolonging the wait.

So he refilled the ice tray at the tap and put it back in the
refrigerator. He closed the refrigerator door. He opened it and
closed it again, musing. As children, he and his sister had once
argued bitterly over whether the light in their stepmother’s
General Electric went out when the door was shut. The inspiration
for this had been the claim of a fanciful friend who
swore that a fairy, a sort of enslaved Jack Frost, lived on the
inside, ready to douse the light the instant it was no longer
needed. This was plainly a lot of rubbish, but posed a question
nonetheless. He had held it was only logical that the light should
go out, while his sister—who had sweets he wanted to share—
perversely challenged him to prove it did not, in fact, stay on.
Naturally, he was unable to do this, and ended up paying lip
service to her irrational viewpoint. He knew that the light must
go out, but it was as pointless an argument as that between an
atheist and a priest debating the immortality of the soul: in
both cases, nothing could be satisfactorily settled this side of
the door.

Hugo Swart laughed softly. There was some truth in this
talk of formative years. What he himself had learned was the
practice of adopting whatever belief best served his own ends
at any particular time. And it seemed to be working out very
satisfactorily in this particular instance. Yes, sir.

His drink was ready. The ice cubes were half their size,
and a wet ring was forming on the breakfast table. This had
certainly been a moment worth waiting for, yet he decided on
one further delay: a toast to his benefactors.

With the glass raised high, he turned to the window in the
hope of seeing himself there in a comically cynical pose against
the night. Unfortunately, the Venetian blinds were down and
he could see nothing.

Even less than he supposed.

For, as he brought the lip of the glass to meet his own,
somebody struck him from behind with a steak knife. This first
blow caught him on the left shoulder blade, skittered across the
flat bone, and snagged between two vertebrae. Such was the
violence of the blow, its force was transmitted to the extremities
and the glass flew, untouched, from his hand. He saw it
shatter and felt the terrible pain.

Strangely, he just stood there—hating the thought of waste,
wondering what could conceivably be happening to him, noting
that the next program would be a short interlude of chamber
music. It startled him to finally realize there was someone else
in the room, someone who wheezed when he breathed and
must hate him very much.

That was his first surprise. There were others.

He staggered into a turn, grabbing at a fork that lay at
the place set for his late supper. But he missed and never
got to identify his assailant either. Before he could raise his
reeling head, he was blind with his own blood—a wild slash
with the knife having opened up the puffiness beneath his
eyebrows.

On the cello’s introductory note came the punched stab
to the chest that knocked him back against the table. It was
no good; all he could do was allow himself to sprawl onto
the broken glass and try to think of something to say. Like
Hail Mary.

Then, in the two beats of silence that followed, artfully
contrived by the composer to key listeners for a bright gush of
vital sound, Hugo Swart had his Adam’s apple cored, and bled
swiftly to death.

Lasting just long enough to hear his hearing aid being
crushed underfoot—and then to reflect on what a fool he
had been.




2

LIEUTENANT TROMP KRAMER of the Trekkersburg
Murder Squad sat alone in the third-floor lavatory and wondered
if anyone would be giving him a birthday present. He was
stark naked and held in his right hand a crumple of paper.

Man, it was hot. So hot it did things to the mind. His own
had spent the day preoccupied with thoughts chill and sparkling
and as far removed from homicide as a swimming pool from
an acid bath. It had also evolved some extraordinary theories
that had nothing to do with work either; such as a notion that
the sun, having drawn up close, was watching, like a boy with
a magnifying glass, its brightness burn holes in the map. If this
was not the way it was, it was the way it felt—particularly in
a hole like Trekkersburg. Right then he hated the skew hook
behind the door and hated the backs of his knees, which he
found impossible to press against the cool porcelain pedestal.

The outer door squeaked open on its spring and slammed
back. The tap at the basin was turned on and left to run in the
vain hope its tepid flow would give way to cold water. Meanwhile,
he of the sanguinary disposition performed an ashesto-
ashes routine with what sounded like a gallon of bleached
Coke aimed at the wall.

Kramer frowned, displeased by this intrusion on his privacy.
He determined not to invite any exchange, not as much as a
hearty vulgarity by way of greeting, and remained very still.
He was also careful to make no sound. Not even when knuckles
rapped perfunctorily at about the height his clothes were hanging.
Which was really a pity, because after the door had squeaked and
slammed a second time, the lights were switched out.

Bugger. Now it was not only bloody hot but pitch bloody dark
as well, and that put paid to the reading matter he had brought
with him. He drew breath sharply. Another mistake, for it was
like inhaling cheroot smoke on a dark night: dry, stifling, and
nasty. Ah, well, this was where his self-indulgent little schemes
usually landed him—right where he was perched. Back in his
stuffy cupboard of an office, with its tease of a telephone and a
queue of half-wits wanting their noses wiped, the idea of a trip
down the passage had seemed a master stroke of contingency
planning. For a full ten minutes before leaving his chair, he had
savored the thought of stripping off and sitting undisturbed,
emptying an occasional mugful from the cistern down his front
when the mood took him. Yet another ten minutes later, it was
plain this was not to be.

Bugger.

He stood up, bent over, pushed the paper between his lapels
and into his jacket pocket, then began to dress. The absurdity
of convention in such a climate, however temporarily extreme,
was stressed once more as the warmth of his shirt, slacks, and
socks, imperceptible on a winter’s morning, engulfed him.
His shoes, which had wandered off behind the brush container,
seemed damp within and his toes enjoyed this. But his purple
tie tightened like a tourniquet.

Done. The tedium of life—and death, for that matter—
could begin again. With a pull on the chain for appearances’
sake, an old habit he had never been able to lack, he unbolted
the door and felt his way out into the passage—catching
Colonel Muller with his finger on the light switch.

“Still here, Kramer?”

“Sir.”

“Excitement too much for you, hey?”

“Always is, sir. But I’m on my way right now, never worry.”

“Kramer.”

“Sir?”

“You’re the one with the worries. I’m off to the Free State
over Christmas, and your old mate Colonel Du Plessis is taking
charge.”

Kramer mouthed a short word.

“Just what I had in mind,” said the Colonel, grinning, as he
disappeared through the door.

Like the good little Kaffir he was, Bantu Detective Sergeant
Mickey Zondi had the Chevrolet waiting, its passenger door hanging
open, right outside the main entrance to the CID building.

“You’re bloody keen,” grunted Kramer, sliding in beside
him. How the hell Zondi managed to stay alive in that buttoned-
up suit was more than he could imagine, wog or no wog.

It must have been ten degrees hotter in there. Still, it did a lot
for his image.

Zondi smiled, licking away a sting of saltiness from his upper
lip. His expression was parboiled boredom, his face bright with
sweat streaks. He started the engine, then teased the car against
the hand brake. He needed directions.

“The note I had said the address was 40-something Sunderland
Avenue,” Kramer responded, digging into his jacket
pocket. “No time to read it properly. That’s right, 44.”

It takes a lot to make tires screech on soft asphalt, but Zondi
achieved this with a U-turn only he saw happen. In seconds, air
was rushing in through the side vents so fast Kramer’s eyeballs
dried up.

He blinked casually and said, “I get the free funeral, you mad
bastard. Remember that.”

“Better,” sighed Zondi, easing off for the traffic lights ahead.
He stuck his right hand out of the window to funnel the false
breeze up his sleeve.

“The note,” Kramer began, his tone didactic, “the note says
that the deceased is one Hugo Swart, aged thirty-three, a bachelor.
He lived alone, worked for the provincial administration
as a draftsman, and was a big churchgoer.”

Zondi clicked his tongue.

“Multiple stab wounds—can mean anything. Last seen alive
eight-thirty.”

“By, boss?”

“By his priest, Father Lawrence, leaving the church.
Same priest discovered the body when he came round about
nine-thirty to discuss something or other. Steak knife; no
fingerprints.”

“Where was this body?”

“In the kitchen. Don’t ask me how the priest got in. I don’t
know yet.”

“Boss Swart was a Catholic? The Roman Danger?”

“Not everybody’s Dutch Reformed who’s got an Afrikaner
name, man.”

Zondi gave Kramer an impertinent sideways look and,
fending the half punch neatly, took off on a show of green. His
master was, at most, nonconforming agnostic.

“Any suspects, boss?”

“Local station say it must have been a Bantu intruder. They
would; their bloody answer to everything. But I suppose they could
be right. When last did anything really happen in this dump?”

“When the elephants lived here, I think.”

“Too right. Stop if you see a tearoom that’s open.”

There was a late-night cafe a few blocks farther on, and
Kramer had him buy them each an ice lollipop.

“I’ll have the chocolate one,” he said, when Zondi got back
into the car. “Can’t have you turning into a bloody cannibal
or something.”

These delicacies went down very well, lasting all the way
out of the city, across the national road, and into the southern
suburb of Skaapvlei. They ditched the sticks as Sunderland
Avenue, lined by the ubiquitous jacaranda tree, twitched off
to the left.

Just the name of the street would have been enough. Zondi
had no need to check the house numbers; the address they
sought was clearly indicated by an assortment of vehicles,
ranging from the District Surgeon’s Pontiac down to the
mortuary van and two bicycles, parked haphazardly outside.
There was also a crowd of servants on the far pavement,
whispering and giggling behind cupped hands—and a few
whites who had suddenly decided to walk the dog themselves.
Things that only happen in films get all the extras
they can use.

Before the Chevrolet had completely stopped, Kramer was
out and standing, thumbs hooked in hip pockets, looking the
crowd over. He was careful how he did it, as somebody there
might have something useful to say. Later on, that was. First
he had to inspect the scene of the crime itself and get his bearings.
So Kramer swiveled around to take in what the exterior
of number 44 had to offer, nodding to Zondi to proceed as he
did so.

The bungalow was the runt in a long line of handsome
houses. Each of them had been born of a separate, conscious
act of creation—of that blessed union between boom wealth
and architectural talent which, because money is a dominate
gene, invariably produces a brainchild as individual as its
sire. That there were duplications of basic styles—Spanish
colonial, early Cape Dutch, Californian aerodynamic, and
restaurant Tudor—only went to show that nobody is quite
the individual he believes himself to be. There was, however,
nothing of the single-litter look of a speculator’s estate about
them, even where the bungalow was concerned. Doubtless
its stunted growth had been the result of some nasty fright
during gestation, perhaps a bull running wild in the stock
exchange. Poor little sod, for it was plain that, had it risen
another floor, then its roof would not have seemed so unnaturally
large, nor its truncated Doric pilasters so stumpy. How
out of place it must have felt, and yet quite unable to mix in
any other company.

As a choice of abode, the bungalow was something else—
unusual, to say the least, for a single man, and a humble civil
servant at that, Kramer expected the first stirrings within him
of interest in the case. None occurred.

He walked over to the other side of the road and stopped.
Instead there was this awareness that in some strange way
he despised himself. Despised himself as he would a jaded
Don Juan moving compulsively toward another whorehouse,
another stranger’s body, another act of professional intimacy,
another striving to climax and release, all without feeling a
thing. Not a damn thing. Just feeding a lust, then walking away
again. Back past the loungers waiting outside, ready to grab
you, eager to know what you knew and what you had done,
too afraid to do it themselves, yet yearning. And how weary a
bugger felt even before it began.
Praise

Praise

Praise for James McClure:

"The pace is fast, the solution ingenious.  Above all, however, is the author’s extraordinary naturalistic style. He is that rarity—a sensitive writer who can carry his point without forcing."
The New York Times Book Review
 
“More than a good mystery story, which it is, The Steam Pig is also a revealing picture of the hate and sickness of the apartheid society of South Africa.”
Washington Post
 
“So artfully conceived as to engender cheers.... A memorable mystery.”
Los Angeles Times
 
"Soho completes its reprinting of one of the finest police series to begin in the 1970s, James McClure's eight books about Tromp Kramer and Mickey Zondi, a South African biracial detective team in the days of Apartheid." 
—Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine

“A superior story by any yardstick.”
Portland Oregonian

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