Thanks to a series of bestsellers, a gentle and cheerful Botswana private eye named Precious Ramotswe is the most famous fictional detective in all of Africa. But the continent's healthy supply of detective novels offer more than coziness: A new generation of mystery novelists offers insight into the violence that so many Africans must endure.
In South Africa, for instance, where the rich hide behind gates and security guards. And in Kenya, a country haunted by the US Embassy terrorist attacks of 1998 and last weekend's horrific shopping mall massacre.
These troubled yet remarkable countries share the spotlight with detectives (also troubled yet remarkable) in a pair of excellent new mysteries. These novels are worth a read, and not only for their top-notch storytelling. They also serve as intimate cultural guides for armchair travelers who want to understand the world around them.
One such novel is "Hour of the Red God" by Richard Crompton, which focuses on Detective Mollel of the Nairobi police. In Crompton's book, everybody knows the Nairobi police detective named Mollel is an outsider. It's as obvious as the nose on his face. Or rather his ears, with their dangling earlobes stretched toward his jawline, a sign of masculinity in his East Africa homeland but a humiliating mark of shame in the big city.
He's an outsider for other reasons – his honesty, his widowhood (a tragic legacy of the 1998 embassy bombing), and his remoteness.
But a murderer is loose, and Nairobi is about to explode in violence amid a disputed election. Outsider or not, Detective Mollel has multiple jobs to juggle along with a young son. (The story is set amid the bloody real-life events of late 2007.)
First-time novelist Richard Crompton is white, like many of the African mystery authors whose books are published in the West. But the former BBC journalist has a fine grasp on the culture of Nairobi, where he lives with his family.
The spellbinding and grimly fascinating "Hour of the Red God" captures the chaos and bluster of the streets, the revealing geography of sprawling Nairobi, and the cold superiority found in the "not-to-be-disobeyed voice of the white man abroad." Crompton understands the ironies too, like how Kenyan society despises his Maasai people but finds them so picaresque that they land on tourism brochures galore.
At times, the Nairobi of "Hour of the Red God" seems like a city that humanity forgot. But Detective Mollel and his creator remind us of what (and who) is at stake in the daily struggles of its citizens.
Another mystery, "Pale Horses" by Jassy Mackenzie, centers on private investigator Jade de Jong, who shocks a woman early on in Mackenzie's fourth installment of the series. She's people-watching, this upscale matron in an upscale coffee shop in Johannesburg's upscale Sandton City shopping mall. And judging, too. Look at that man, daring to wear shorts. Here! Of all places! And a young woman without a single accessory, not even an earring.
They meet. Maybe they're on a date. Oh, how delightful! The matron, a romantic at heart, strains to get a look at the young woman's face. Then she gasps.
Yes, something's wrong with Jade de Jong, the brash and wounded private eye who stars in Jassy Mackenzie's evocative and immensely readable series of detective novels. Her eyes have it.
But "Pale Horses," which begins with a remarkable narrative inside the coffee shop, has bigger concerns than a woman who seems to be unraveling. Death has come from above at Sandton City – an emblem of South Africa's glossy if airless potential – and gravity isn't the only culprit.
The novel focuses not only on the South African people but also involves a plot involving agriculture and environmental destruction. That makes for a few clunky moments of preachy dialogue, but the exciting story, finely drawn characters, and evocative rural scenes more than make up for it.
In the big picture, novelist Mackenzie is realistic about the nation she calls home. Its inherent violence is once again a main character. But her love for South Africa comes through in book after book. As she told me in a 2012 Monitor interview, "I know that some readers initially see only the fact that it is a very violent country, [but] it's also a place that has an incredible heart to it.... There's an amazing generosity and wonderful spirit in the people who are here in South Africa."
Why do people choose to live in places like South Africa? The answer lies in her words.
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.