Return to the scene of the crime: The returnee detective and postcolonial crime fiction

Doctoral Thesis


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University of Cape Town

This thesis investigates the ways in which the crime novel genre has been taken up and adapted in order to depict and grapple with ideas of justice in selected postcolonial contexts. It approaches this investigation through the figure of the 'returnee detective' in these texts and determines how this recurring figure is used to mediate the reader's understanding of civil conflict in the postcolonial world. What makes this trope so noteworthy, and merits investigation, is the way in which guilt and innocence (and their attendant associations of self and other) are forced into realignment by the end of colonial rule and the rise of civil conflict. In the context of civil war, crime becomes more insidious and intimate than the traditional mystery motif will allow. The returnee detective furthers this breakdown by performing the role of hybrid mediator within the text. The returnee figure is at once strange and familiar, lacking both the staunch sense of identity that is necessary in order to maintain the mystery of the 'other' and the objectivity to comfortably apportion blame to one side. Postcolonial fictions of crime set in the context of civil conflict thus emerge as belonging to a distinct category requiring a distinct critical approach. The primary texts are When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro, Anil's Ghost by Michael Ondaatje, The Long Night of White Chickens by Francisco Goldman, Red Dust by Gillian Slovo and Crossbones by Nuruddin Farah. My theoretical framework combines genre theory and postcolonial theory. By combining two critical strands I demonstrate that the intimacy of civil war and the returnees' ambivalent attitudes to home and away unsettle crime genre conventions, producing a new form that challenges notions of morality, legitimacy and culpability.