Tom Sharpe: Riotous Assembly

riotous_assemblyRiotous Assembly
Tom Sharpe
First published in the UK 1971 by Martin Secker and Warburg Ltd
This edition Random House
ISBN: 9781446474679
Source: Kindle

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.

Piemburg (Pietermaritzburg) town hall. Photo by Tim Giddings.

Pietermaritzburg (aka Piemburg) Town Hall looking a lot like St Pancras station in its full Victorian splendour. Photo by Tim Giddings.

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.


See also:

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

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Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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8 Responses to Tom Sharpe: Riotous Assembly

  1. Been at least a decade since I read anything by him – PORTERHOUSE BLUE was probably the last, which I did like as a bit of campus grotesque.


  2. It’s been a long time since I read this – I went through a phase of reading all his works, but eventually gave him up. He could be very funny, but some of the humour was, as you say, too broad. He was very very popular in the 70’s I would say, I wonder if he is read much now? There was a TV series of Porterhouse Blue I think.


  3. Nordie says:

    Think I made one foray into Tom Sharpe’s world with Indecent Exposure, mainly to see if there was anything I was missing. It seemed not. I dont mind satire, but like you say, satire by use of sec toys only goes so far and I’ve managed to avoid his books ever since!


  4. tracybham says:

    Certainly the subject matter sounds interesting, but maybe too dark for me. Yet I would not mind giving it a try.


  5. realthog says:

    Can I speak up in defense of Sharpe’s works” I read Riotous Assembly and Indecent Exposure soon after they came out in UK paperback, and they were exactly right for that period. First, though less importantly, what’s here being called “farce” and “too broad” was then called “over-the-top humour” and was all the rage; to criticize Sharpe on these grounds is a bit like criticizing Dickens for not being Mickey Spillane: his novels were of their time.

    Second, it was an era in which the Johannesburg gallows were reputedly the busiest in the world, with all of the executed having but one skin color. Things would get worse before they got better; in due course Saint Ronnie would start supporting it all. Apartheid was a very real and a very venomous curse upon the human condition. Somehow, in the tradition (I believe) of the anti-Hitler Jews and the anti-Stalin liberals, Sharpe managed to make a dark, dark joke out of it all, thereby attacking the vicious, racist oppressors far more effectively than any number of speeches from establishment worthies. Here was Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil, and Sharpe, I think rightly, chose to make its perpetrators into buffoons whom the world could ridicule.

    His later, Cambridge novels were often very funny too in that same over-the-top style, but for obvious reasons they lacked much of the satirical bite of his two anti-Apartheid pieces. Even so, they were part of the grand British comic-novel heritage that would, soon after Sharpe, give rise to the likes of Tom Holt and Terry Pratchett.

    And the ribaldry that some are criticizing here? That’s straight from Chaucer.

    Is wot I think.


    • westwoodrich says:

      It’s good that everyone seems agreed on the black humour, which I assume must have been the hardest parts to write. Courageous, too, if he began writing them while he was in South Africa.

      I wouldn’t deny that Sharpe has a place in the history of comic novels. Myself, I don’t see much of that ribaldry in Terry Pratchett or Tom Holt* (who I see more in the gentler tradition of Wodehouse and Jerome), but it came out in the early alternative comedians in the UK and is definitely alive and well across the Atlantic with the likes of Family Guy and South Park (which also has the satirical agenda, of course).

      *As an aside, where are the non-genre comic novelists? Who have I missed?


  6. Anonymous says:

    Realthog: I think that you’ve hit it on the head. Some critics complained that he lost his touch when he moved away from books that attacked Apartheid, but this is to misread what Sharpe was actually about. He was a comic writer who used his skill to attack a particular evil, rather than a determined polemicist or satririst. Stuff like VINTAGE STUFF or THE THROWBACK are just as well written as RIOTOUS ASSEMBLY or INDECENT EXPOSURE, but they did not win the appreciation of critcs who agreed with the anti-apartheid stance without really sharing the same sense of humour. The books are of their time, but this does make them fascinating as time-capsules. You really do get a feel for the 70s and early 80s when you read them, rather in the way that Mel Brook’s BLAZING SADDLES gets away with stuff that even a few years later would be impossible because it is so triumphantly of its period.


  7. Pingback: 2014 Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge – status update | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

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