I decided to combine this month’s crime-novel-of-the-year challenge (1971) with my own travels, choosing the South African-set Riotous Assembly to take with me to Johannesburg and Cape Town this week. The flight is so enormously long that I finished it before I got halfway.
Needing to get hold of a copy meant I bought this as an e-book rather than finding a vintage copy, so I regard this review (and certainly the cover image, which I just found on the internet) as being a bit of a betrayal of this blog’s core values. Still, here it is…
The book is set in Piemburg, an old British colonial town in Apartheid-era South Africa.
In Piemburg time stood still, marked only by the dust that gathered on the heads of the stuffed lions in the Alexandra Club and by the drip of snobbery. Piemburg’s mediocrity was venomous and waited gently on events.
This sleepy and overlooked town is apparently a version of Pietermaritzburg, where Sharpe taught for part of the 50s and 60s before being deported for speaking out against Apartheid. Riotous Assembly could be viewed as his revenge, and boy did he put the boot in.
The central character is Kommandant van Heerden, an ineffective police chief who has been sent to Piemburg to rot. He actually likes the backwater town – as an avowed Anglophile he enjoys studying its British population. And that Britishness reaches its peak in Miss Hazelstone of Jacaranda Park, last scion of an old military family:
She was old, ugly, garrulous and abrupt to the point of rudeness. Hardly alluring qualities but to the Kommandant they were filled with extraordinary attractions. These were all the attributes of the English. To hear Miss Hazelstone’s voice, high-pitched, loud and utterly unselfconscious, was to hear the true voice of the British Empire.
When Miss Hazelstone telephones to confess to murdering her Zulu cook, the Kommandant is shocked to learn that her motive was sexual. He gets even more shocked when he sees her bedroom. A revelation of this magnitude has to be covered up in the interests of suppressing racial unrest, and so the Kommandant is forced to take serious steps. The town’s incompetent and over-armed police force lumbers into action, resulting in any number of deaths before the book has even begun in earnest.
As an indictment of the Apartheid system Riotous Asssembly doesn’t pull any punches. The police are pig-ignorant and full to the brim with the banality of evil.
Miss Hazelstone was telephoning to report that she had just shot her Zulu cook. Konstabel Els was perfectly capable of handling the matter. He had in his time as a police officer shot any number of Zulu cooks. Besides there was a regular procedure for dealing with such reports […]
‘Killing a white cook can be murder. It’s unlikely but it can be. Killing a black cook can’t. Not under any circumstances.’
The satire is pretty dark, and probably not to some tastes. I didn’t find it laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s certainly very effective.
Unfortunately the story rapidly dissolves into farce: not my favourite thing. I’ve only read a handful of Tom Sharpe novels, but they all seem to prominently feature rubber sex toys. Are rubber sex toys really that funny? Funny enough to sustain several books? Really? And will this paragraph improve my blog traffic?
While I personally find Sharpe’s sense of humour a bit tiresome, I admire his aims in Riotous Assembly. And it is a useful reminder of a shameful era.
Does it really count as crime fiction? There are certainly many many crimes taking place and a sense of things spiralling out of control. I would argue that it could be categorised as screwball noir.
Savidge Reads: ‘What Tom Sharpe does masterfully here is that as you read on and belly laugh at events as they unfold you suddenly become aware that there is a lot of truth hidden in what you are laughing at. For example, you might be laughing at the outrageous notion that its fine to kill your cook in the house but not out of it, until you realise its true. You might be laughing as Konstabel Els finds even more ridiculous ways to torture someone, then you check yourself as you know that this did happen, and was happening when the book was published. ‘
Sharpe’s BBC obituary: ‘Sharpe’s first novel – Riotous Assembly, a satire of Apartheid set in a fictional South African town – was published in 1971 when he was 43 and spawned a sequel, Indecent Exposure, two years later. From that point on he produced a book every year, using one of the 17 typewriters he kept around his Cambridgeshire house.’
Final destination: Staying on the Kindle
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.