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Crime Beat

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Crime Beat: African crime fiction – a US view

mrj africa editionThe current issue of Mystery Readers Journal is a special Africa edition, and Crime Beat has permission from editor Janet Rudolph to lift pieces from time to time. That said, if you’re interested in the continent’s crime fiction you’ll want to buy this issue either in hard copy or for $5 as a pdf. To order go to Mystery Readers Journal. For starters here’s a piece by Verna Suit which says rather more about the US view of Africa and African thrillers than it does about what’s really happening in African crime fiction. More to follow over the coming weeks:

A Safari Through African Mysteries by Verna Suit

My reading safari through Africa began because I love reading about the 1920s. It was a time of changes everywhere and exciting new things — airplanes, movies, jazz, even crossword puzzles. So when I happened upon Michael Kilian’s A Sinful Safari (2003), set among British expatriates in 1920s East Africa, I settled in for a good read. Kilian didn’t disappoint. His book is a delightful romp that blends fact with fiction. Real-life characters Blor and Karen Blixen, Denys Finch-Hatton, Beryl Markham and the Prince of Wales all make appearances, and the murder happens on a safari that could have come right out of an old Tarzan movie. I grinned through the whole book.

Then a few years later, I was delighted to see the debut of Suzanne Arruda’s Jade del Cameron series, also set in 1920s Africa. Mark of the Lion (2006) introduces New Mexico-born Jade as she’s driving an ambulance in WWI. Afterward, she moves on to Kenya to keep a promise to a dying fiancé and to pursue a career in photojournalism. She’s joined there by titled friends from the war and collects other assorted companions who continue through the series.

In the first book, Jade establishes herself locally as a force to be reckoned with and is given her Swahili name, Simba Jike (Lioness). In Stalking Ivory (2007), an assignment to do an elephant survey leads to a battle with ivory poachers. The Serpent’s Daughter (2008) takes Jade to Morocco to rendezvous with her travelling mother and finds them both kidnapped in Marrakech and rescued by Berbers. Jade is back in Kenya for The Leopard’s Prey (2009), helping to collect animals for zoos and trying her hand at flying. Treasure of the Golden Cheetah (2009) takes Jade on an ill-fated safari as co-handler of a Hollywood movie cast and crew.

Arruda’s books have everything. Jade herself is ready for adventure and represents women’s new independence and freedom. Her pet cheetah, Biscuit, charms animal lovers, and love interest Sam Featherstone’s flying and filmmaking taps into the era’s technological changes. The book itself is good-hearted, with Jade’s circle of friends all caring about Africa and its people and animals, and also about each other. All this is set against the exciting, beautiful, mysterious African landscape. I happily read through all five books.

The 1920s may have brought me to reading about Africa, but the continent itself kept me there. The exotic scenery and animals seduced me, and so did the pioneer spirit that, for better or worse, brought westerners swarming into Nairobi at the beginning of the last century. It echoed the experience of the American West, with the added charm of the very civilized English dealing with frontier rigors.

Finally forced to move on from the 1920s, I came upon British author Elspeth Huxley, best known for her memoir of growing up in Kenya, The Flame Trees of Thika. But she also wrote a series of contemporary Kenya-set mysteries in the late 1930s. Murder at Government House (1937), Murder on Safari (1938), and The African Poison Mysteries (1939) all follow CID Superintendant Vachell as he investigates murders. The last book was written on the eve of WWII and addresses the growing Nazi threat among alien residents of the British colony. Huxley is an author from an earlier, less socially conscious age, and though an occasional servant in her books is named, mostly they are just “the boys”. For whatever reason, she lightly disguises Kenya in two of her books by calling it “Chania.”

Next up was popular author M.M. Kaye, who set books in the exotic locales where her British military father and then husband were posted. Death in Kenya (1958) deals with the Mau Mau rebellion against British rule, which took place in the 1950s, when Kaye lived there, and led to Kenyan independence in 1963. In the book, Kaye’s British settler/farmers jealously guard their “own little patch” which they worked hard to establish. They are still paternalistic toward their Kikuyu servants but are marginally more sensitive. Their empathy is mixed with distrust, however, because the Kikuyu make up the core of the Mau Mau Rebellion. Death in Zanzibar (1959) is nominally set on this small island off Tanzania but might better have been titled “Going to Zanzibar” because it mostly takes place en route.

Karin McQuillan wrote a series that brings Kenya up to the near present. Deadly Safari (1990), Elephant’s Graveyard (1992), and Cheetah Chase (1994) feature American heroine Jazz Jasper who comes to Kenya to escape a failed marriage and starts her own safari company. Like Jade del Cameron, Jazz does a little P.I. work on the side, which is one way she gets involved in solving murders. The books generally concern the plight of endangered species vs. the usual suspects—poachers, developers, the idle rich, and crooked politicians.

After I left Kenya (figuratively), I moved farther afield with my reading safari — a word that I learned is Swahili and means “camping”. My next stop was South Africa, a country with an even older European presence than Kenya, and one more extensive and fractious. The British, Dutch, and native populations have been struggling for control in South Africa for 350 years, providing fertile ground for mystery writers.

So I camped out in South Africa for a while, starting with Malla Nunn’s excellent first novel, A Beautiful Place to Die (2009). It’s 1952 and repressive new apartheid laws have recently been imposed by the ruling National Party. A Johannesburg detective is sent to a rural town to investigate the murder of a local police chief, but finds his efforts blocked by heavy-handed Security Branch men determined to find a political motive for the killing. Nunn’s sensitive novel lays out the complex arrangements that circumscribed the lives of English, Boer (Afrikaner), Indian, Negro, and mixed-race South Africans. Officially the rules were followed, but in the real world people made accommodations. To live was to lie.

Johannesburg-born James McClure’s eight-book series is also set in apartheid South Africa. The Steam Pig (1971), The Caterpillar Cop (1972), The Gooseberry Fool (1974), Snake (1975), Rogue Eagle (1976), The Sunday Hangman (1977), The Blood of an Englishman (1980), and The Song Dog (1991) all feature CID Lt. Tromp Kramer and his Bantu assistant, Mickey Zondi. In the fictional city of Trekkersburg in the Orange Free State, the white Afrikaner and his black assistant create a practical collaboration to sort out crimes in a society impossibly split along racial lines. His books have won both Gold and Silver Dagger awards from the Crime Writers Association.

An unlikely writer to produce a South African mystery is Swedish author Henning Mankell. The White Lioness (1993) uses the ploy of a Zulu hitman recruited to kill recently released Nelson Mandela and sent for training to Sweden, an out-of-the-way place where he should escape detection. Action alternates between Sweden and South Africa, with Kurt Wallender investigating a related local murder and South African police following up rumours of an assassination.

A wonderful discovery was Deon Meyer’s series of crime novels set in the current day. Written in Afrikaans and translated into English, all his thrillers centre on strong men who are trying to reclaim their lives. Dead Before Dying (1996) and Dead at Daybreak(2000) feature current and former police officers of the Murder and Robbery Squad. Heart of the Hunter (2002) and Devil’s Peak (2008) follow a former Xhosa mercenary as he tries to redeem himself. Blood Safari (2009) features a bodyguard with a past he tries to forget. Through well-written and nuanced protagonists and a continuing cast of minor characters, Meyer deals with South Africa’s challenges from a variety of perspectives. Frequent references to the country’s modern history and its players, organizations, and collaborators shed welcome light on this fascinating and turbulent tip of the Dark Continent.

After South Africa’s painful complexities, it was time to enjoy the simple life. Alexander McCall Smith’s No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series was just the thing. Currently numbering eleven books, Precious Ramotswe and her friends and family create an oasis of charm in their corner of Botswana. To Mma Ramotswe’s thinking, her wonderful country should serve as a model for the rest of the world. In her detective work she is a Miss Marple of the Kalahari Desert, using her insight and knowledge of people to solve local mysteries. Along the way she finds practical solutions to tricky moral issues.

Also set in Botswana are two police procedurals by “Michael Stanley”, the pen name used by South Africans Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. A Carrion Death (2008) concerns greed arising from local diamond mining, and The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu [published in South Africa as A Deadly Trade] (2009) involves two missing tourists, with flashbacks to 1979 during the Rhodesian Civil War. Like Mma Ramotswe, their detective David “Kubu” (hippopotamus) Bengu is “traditionally built” and enjoys a warm, loving home life. But the books themselves are more mainstream and darker, with gruesome murder scenes and complex plots.

Moving north from Botswana, I visited Zambia courtesy of author Dorothy Gilman. In Mrs. Pollifax on Safari (1976), the grandmotherly spy is sent on safari with an assignment to snap pictures of her travel companions, because one of them is an assassin who plans to kill new president Kenneth Kuanda. She returned to Africa briefly in Mrs. Pollifax Pursued (1995) and again in Mrs. Pollifax and the Lion Killer (1996) but I didn’t go with her. These visits were to the fictional country of “Ubangiba”, supposedly a small impoverished country subject to coups. Ubangiba might have been almost anywhere and I like to know where I am.

Getting my bearings wasn’t a problem with Jeremy Duns’ highly suspenseful Free Agent (2009), set in 1969 Nigeria. It tells the story of double agent Paul Dark, who races to Nigeria to keep his identity from being blown and gets involved in remnants of the Nigerian/Biafran Civil War. This spy thriller is complete with KGB agents, beautiful seductresses, and a well-researched period backdrop.

My last stop, and another high point of my safari, was Ghana. In Kwei Quartey’s excellent Wife of the Gods (2009), protagonist Darko Dawson is a CID homicide detective based in the capital, Accra. He travels to a small village at the edge of the jungle to investigate a young woman’s unexplained death. Coincidentally, it’s the village where his mother was born, and where she disappeared eighteen years earlier. The two mysteries intertwine. Darko frequently runs up against the power wielded by traditional healers and damaging belief in superstition and witches. The author’s credentials as a native-born Ghanaian give this book a rare authenticity.

My armchair travelling through Africa both entertained and educated me. I learned some geography, reflected on history, and got to know a bit more about how people in other countries live. I found the same motives for crime and murder as anywhere else — jealousy, greed, pride, power etc.— with local permutations affected by the delicate balance among races. All authors get high marks for description, with the exotic African setting becoming a major character in nearly every book.
Verna Suit lives in Silver Spring, Maryland. She regularly reviews mysteries for Mystery Scene, I Love a Mystery and Mystery Readers Journal.


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