Employing a deft and very amusing mixture of slapstick comedy and extreme irony, Sharpe gives a lacerating account of the Hazelstone family's war against the cruelty and incompetence of the police force of a provincial town in South Africa during the apartheid era. From the lowliest member of the force, Konstabel Els, to the senior officer, Kommandant van Heerden, they are shown to be uniformly inept and unimaginative, and eventually come to rue the day they dared complain about the behavior of Miss Hazelstone or her brother, Bishop Hazelstone of Barotseland. The town of "Piemburg" is a thinly disguised version of Pietermauritzburg, where Sharpe lived and worked for ten years. Whether he is satirizing real people is up for debate, although it is known that one British-born Anglican bishop in South Africa who was opposed to apartheid had more than a usual parochial interest in the welfare of young African men in his flock. His name was not a million miles removed from "Hazelstone", either (See Roman à Clef, below).
Followed by the sequel Indecent Exposure.
- Kommandant van Heerden - the ineffectual and cowardly police chief.
- Liutnanat Verkramp - his certifiably insane political policeman, local head of BOSS.
- Sergeant der Kock - long-time copper, cunning but not bright.
- Konstabel Els - unspeakable psychopath who joined the police so that he could legally kill black men and rape black women.
- Miss Hazelstone - local mem-sahib and matriarch with a fetish for rubber and black men.
- Bishop Hazelstone of Barotseland - her brother. A churchman who is falsely accused of a crime.
- Toby the Doberman - Miss Hazelstone's pet.
This novel provides examples of:
- Abhorrent Admirer: Miss Hazelstone sets out to seduce van Heerden.
- Amoral Afrikaner: Most of the white characters qualify. Easily.
- Awful Truth: A corrupt police force serving a corrupt state - what can you expect?
- Bad Cop/Incompetent Cop: Van Heerden and Verkramp.
- Bigot with a Badge: The book and its sequel are set in Apartheid South Africa. Naturally, they feature bigots with badges, especially Konstabel Els, who joined the police force so he could kill and rape blacks legally.
- Bilingual Bonus: The word verkramp has a rafter of colloquial meanings in Afrikaans: constipated, crazy, poisoned...
- Black Is Bigger in Bed: Played for seriously black humor. The novel begins with the horror evinced by van Heerden when he realises the pillar of respectable white society, Lady Hazelstone, murdered her black cook when he refused to continue having sex with her. It becomes not only a murder case but confronts the unspeakable horror of a white woman actually *wanting* to have sex with a Zulu. He is further horrified when Lady Hazelstone casually confesses to both crimes - and adds that she used various drugs to enhance both the size and duration of her lover's erection, as she directly injected these into his penis, explaining the victim's reluctance to continue the affair in the first place.
- Boomerang Bigot: Konstabel Els, who makes the rest of the unashamedly racist Piemburg police force look like angels of mercy, is himself mixed-race and passing as white. Van Heerden is well aware of this, but it's implied he's keeping a lid on it simply because Els is a cop.
- Grande Dame: Miss Hazelstone.
- Hope Spot: Els's "death" is this to Piemburg's entire black population.
- Killer Cop: Els joined the police force to be allowed to legally kill black men and rape black women.
- Meaningful Name: Verkramp has a rafter of meanings in Afrikaans: constipated, crazy, mentally deranged, or politically conservative'', among others.
- As well as the Huddelstone correspondence, a particularly autocratic colonial governor of South Africa, whose remedy for even the slightest sign of rebellion by black tribes was to send out a heavily armed punitive military force, a man whose actions contributed to the outbreak of the Zulu War, was Sir Theophilus Shepstone.
- More Dakka: When Els loses permission to fire Judge Hazelstone's elephant gun, he borrows the Browning machine guns from the Saracen armoured cars, then jury rigs the four of them to fire simultaneously. Ironically, he hits only one target: the vulture.
- Pit Trap: Verkramp falls into one, complete with extra punji stakes and poisonous spider in residence.
- Police Are Useless: The entire Piemburg force.
- Police Brutality: Also the entire Piemburg force, plus Els, who is in a league of his own.
- Politically Incorrect Villain: It's hard to think of a white character who isn't this. Special points to Els, who doesn't even believe blacks are human.
- Race Fetish: White policemen consider sexually assaulting black female prisoners a rare perk in an underpaid job. Van Heerden himself is not averse - but when he feels the need, he takes it over the border to brothels in Portuguese Mozambique, which isn't breaking any South African racial separation law. Verkramp, his resident secret policeman, duly keeps a file on his boss to bring out when the time is right.
- Roman à Clef: The book is high farce taken up to eleven, but there is the interesting correspondence of names and identities between Bishop Hazelstone and the real life Bishop Trevor Huddlestonnote , who was deported from South Africa in contentious, ambiguous, and fiercely debated circumstances. It is generally accepted that the apartheid regime was trying to smear and discredit a vocal opponent, but it is undeniable that after his return to England, the British police found cause to question him on allegations of sexual abuse of young boys in his new clerical posting (they dropped the investigation on the grounds of lack of proof). Controversy rumbles on.
- Secret Police: Liutnant Verkramp, local sector head of the Bureau of State Security.
- There Is No Kill Like Overkill: Practically a trademark of the Hazelstone family, aside from the genetic cowardice of their patriarchs. Sir Theophilus Hazelstone used 10-inch naval guns at twelve yards, Judge Hazelstone had a four-barreled elephant gun built that could incapacitate (or, as Els thought, kill, or possibly evaporate) a charging pachyderm at 1,000 yards, and Miss Hazelstone owns a very large collection of them, all in perfect working order.
- Title Drop: Van Heerden orders a stage battle between white and black actors to stop, calling it "a violation of the Riotous Assemblies Act."
- Where the Hell Is Springfield?: "Piemburg" is a real place. It is based on Pietermauritzberg in Natal, where the author lived and worked until he was deported as an undesirable. The military base in P-berg is called Fort Napier, after an eminent Victorian. While there is no doubt Sharpe based his city on a real place, it should also be noted there is a second city in South Africa where the locals also contract the name to P-berg: Pietersburg in the old Transvaal (changed to Polokhwane as of 2002).