The African crime writing duo pick the best books in their field, from established greats Agatha Christie and John Le Carré to newer names on the scene such as Kwei Quartey and Deon Meyer
Michael Stanley is the writing team of native Africans Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. Research for their books has taken the friends tracking lions at night, fighting bush fires on the Savuti plains in northern Botswana, surviving a charging elephant and losing their navigation maps while flying over the Kalahari.
Their new novel, A Deadly Trade, is published in paperback by Headline.
1. Murder at Government House by Elspeth Huxley
Elspeth Huxley is best known for The Flame Trees of Thika, in which she recalls her childhood years growing up in Kenya. She wrote a total of 30 books, including three mysteries, Murder at Government House, The African Poison Murders, and Murder on Safari. The first of these mysteries, Murder at Government House (1935), is set in the colonial town of Chania, where the governor is found strangled at his desk after a dinner party. Canadian-born Superintendent Vachel of the CID is called in to investigate. He finds himself in a web of colonial intrigue and dubious business dealings. From a personal perspective, our book, A Carrion Death, opens with a scene in which a hyena is used to dispose of a body. It was amusing to read that Huxley used a similar same device 70 years earlier. These mysteries give the reader an excellent overview of British colonialism, often very funny to today’s mind, and an alluring taste of African geography and culture, including the pervasive influence of witchdoctors. The descriptions of the bush and animals are delightful.
2. Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie
Death on the Nile (1937) was published around the same time as Elspeth Huxley’s mysteries, but is very different from them. Despite being one of the first mysteries set in Africa – but not sub-Saharan Africa – it has very little local colour. In many ways it could take place anywhere. However, this Hercule Poirot mystery is full of intrigue and plot twists. Every other page causes readers to change their minds as to whom to suspect. The passengers on the Nile cruiser are wonderfully eccentric, with a basketful of motivations for murder. It takes the skill of Poirot to see through the misdirections to solve the case.
3. Song Dog by James McClure
James McClure is the father of South African crime writing and the winner of both Gold and Silver Dagger awards from the Crime Writers Association (CWA). He is best known for his Kramer and Zondi series, set in the midst of the apartheid era, in which a white detective, Lieutenant Tromp Kramer of the Trekkersburg police, partners with black Bantu Detective Sergeant Mickey Zondi. Song Dog (1991), set in 1962, was the last written of the series, but is actually a prequel to the first book, Steam Pig. It is in Song Dog that the two protagonists meet for the first time, bumping into each other in a remote place in Zululand while investigating different cases. Song Dog, as with the other books in the series, is a wonderful depiction of the complexities and unpleasantness of life in apartheid South Africa. The interactions between people of different races and the tensions between the English- and Afrikaans-speaking whites are realistically portrayed. But what I like best is the relationship between Kramer and Zondi – they develop a fondness and respect for each other that has to exist within the confines of apartheid and often has to be concealed from others. Add to this good plots and wry humour, and all the books in the series are delightful reads. A word of caution: in today’s world some of the language in the books would be regarded as very derogatory, but its presence is necessary for the accurate depiction of the era.
4. Instruments of Darkness by Robert Wilson
Robert Wilson is best known for books set outside Africa – in particular A Small Death in Lisbon which won the CWA gold dagger. But he has an excellent series of books set in West Africa around a dubious hero operating in a dubious environment. In the first book in the series – Instruments of Darkness (1996) – set in Benin, we meet English ex-pat Bruce Medway as he buys and sells and fixes, pretty much at the edge of the law. But then no one cares about that there anyway. A deal that goes wrong leads him to a search for a murdered man. Along the way he meets Bagado, a smart and able policeman, whose skills aren’t valued in a country where corruption is the currency of officialdom. As he tries to solve the crime, the detective worries if he’ll be paid his salary at all and whether he can live on it if he is. The plot is gripping, the characters alive, and the backdrop the shabbiness of a collapsing system.
5. The Screaming of the Innocent by Unity Dow
Unity Dow was the first female High Court judge in Botswana and participated in the landmark case concerning Bushmen rights. She is the author of four books. The Screaming of the Innocent (2002) is a powerful and disturbing book. A young girl vanishes; the police guess that she has been eaten by a lion, but the reader knows that she has been ritually murdered for body parts reputed to bestow great power. Years later a female student doing national service in the community comes across a box of clothing which seems to belong to the missing girl. But after she draws attention to it, the box vanishes. She seeks out a friend – now a lawyer – and the two young women pursue the matter together. The book is good not only because of the intriguing characters and plot, but because the reader finds the premise completely believable because the perspective is purely African. To westerners, witchcraft has become almost flippant superstition, like avoiding a black cat. But in many African cultures, it is not only respected and feared, but deeply believed. It is this that Dow manages to capture so well in her novel. The heroine follows the twists and turns and seems to be taking us to a successful resolution. But Africa is often not like that.
6. The Mission Song by John Le Carré
The Mission Song (2006) revolves around its narrator, Salvo, illegitimate son of a white Catholic missionary and a Congolese mother. Salvo is a professional translator specialising in the languages of the Congo region. Salvo’s linguistic abilities lead him into a vipers’ nest of business men, civil servants and mercenaries apparently intent on freeing his home province of Kivu. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that actually what is planned is a coup followed by a puppet government to oversee the exploitation of the country’s mineral wealth. African crime fiction? Little of the book takes place in Africa. But the key characters are African through and through and their needs and desires drive the story. Le Carré mentions that he made only a brief research trip to the eastern Congo, but he is careful and his settings ring true. While the backdrop of the book is the exploitation of Africa by unscrupulous westerners, the development of Salvo as a thinking person and as an African is the real story.
7. Devils Peak by Deon Meyer
Deon Meyer is the best known contemporary South African crime writer. His six books have won a number of awards, and he was the first to honestly reflect the current realities of the new South Africa in his books. Devils Peak (2007) opens with a high-class prostitute confessing to the minister of a small-town church. The story switches to a black man, once a special agent for the old regime but now grasping for a new life, watching his young son being killed by thugs. The system fails him and the perpetrators are released. He decides to settle the score himself, with vicious murderers who prey on the weak. If you think the vigilante theme is clichéd, read this book. Meyer’s detective – Benny Griessel – has to end the killing. But Benny has his own battle with the alcohol he uses as an escape. The book is a page-turning thriller, with one of the scariest parts being where Benny buys a bottle of brandy.
8. Blood Rose by Margie Orford
Margie Orford returned to South Africa in 2001 after 13 years of living overseas and in Namibia. Her work as a crime reporter made her want to complete the fragmented stories on which she worked, leading to her heroine Clare Hart. Like her creator, Hart is an investigative journalist. Her partner is a captain in the South African police. In Blood Rose (2007) it seems that a vicious psychopath is at work in Walvis Bay, a sad desert-locked, fishing port in Namibia, fallen on hard times. Street boys are being killed and mutilated. Clare sometimes works as a profiler for the police and gets involved. But is there another motive for the killings? Clare finds a thread leading back to the days of the South African occupation. And other people are looking for the answers, too. The race develops into a tense thriller with surprising twists.
9. Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartey
2009 saw the debut of a talented Ghanian crime writer who lives in the United States. Inspector Darko Dawson is a detective in Accra, a moody and potentially violent man. He is asked to investigate a murder in the rural village of Ketanu where he has relatives. Soon he is embroiled with traditional beliefs and fetish priests juxtaposed with modern doctors and AIDS concerns. Kwei reveals the cultural conflicts of an African country trying to become a modern nation; many of the issues remind us of similar tensions in Botswana. Darko ponders these issues as he lights a joint, and slowly, with clever intuition and careful police work, homes in on the solution to the case. A solution he would rather not have found.
10. Zulu by Caryl Férey
Caryl Férey was born in France, grew up in England, and has travelled the world. His writing includes thrillers, mysteries, travelogues, and children’s books. He won the French Grand Prix for Best Crime Novel of 2008 for Zulu, published in English in 2010. Zulu’s protagonist is a Zulu by the name of Ali Neuman, a survivor of inter-tribal brutality when Xhosas and Zulus were fighting for dominance as South Africa moved towards democracy. As his last name suggests (Neuman = new man), Ali has left his past behind. He is now chief of the homicide division of the South African police in Cape Town. One of his staff is Brian Epkeen, a white man. Together they have to deal with crime that inevitably exists in sprawling areas of un- and under-employed people – crime exacerbated by gangs, both local and from other parts of Africa. Investigating the death of several young women, Neuman encounters a new drug on the scene – one that is so potent that it can cause people to kill without remorse. Then he discovers that the drug likely found its origins in the old apartheid secret service and is being manufactured and sold by ex-apartheid supporters. The world that Neuman and Epkeen work in is incessantly terrifying. Readers of Zulu will find little respite, but those who stick with it will be rewarded with a fine tale.
Full article and photo: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/jun/30/michael-stanley-african-crime