Girls are disappearing in Botswana. The rumor is they're being harvested for muti, a witch doctor's potion traditionally derived from plants and animals—and which, some believe, can be made more potent by adding human remains. Detective David "Kubu" Bengu joins the investigation with the police force's newest detective—and only woman—Samantha Khama, for whom the case is personal.
Some of the very best crime fiction explores issues that are relevant to the society in which it is set. Michael Stanley's Kubu series, set in Botswana seems to have really hit its straps in that department in the last couple of books, with DEADLY HARVEST reaching a particular high. The fourth book in the Detective Kubu series, here the author(s) are exploring the disappearance of a number of young girls. The suspicion is that these girls are the victims of a powerful, unknown witchdoctor, looking for victims to incorporate in his muti, or traditional African healing, potions.
This is, needless to say a rather confrontational storyline. Built as it is into questions of the powerful and powerless in society, and the ravages of AIDS and HIV within families throughout Botswana.
The confrontational is handled well though. The style of these stories is slightly mannered (for want of a better description), there's a tone in the writing that fits with the style and personality of Detective Kubu. Measured, careful, considered and slightly formal, Kubu is an interesting man with a balanced life. The storytelling itself is also nicely balanced with time in the personal and family life, which doesn't pull focus from the main investigation line. In DEADLY HARVEST the authors have also introduced a new, female investigator in Detective Samantha Khama. A serious foil to Kubu's measured nature, Khama is more driven, impulsive, emotional if you like. Mind you, that doesn't come across as a male versus female thing, rather the senior more experienced policeman and the young gun with things to prove, and a few things to learn.
I must admit I love this series, and DEADLY HARVEST as much as I loved the last book. It's current day, it's got that educational look into real life in a developing nation. It is measured and polite, and somehow feels very very African. If you've not read any of the Kubu series then there's no time like the present. Each book would work on its own if you need to dive in, but as is always the case with these series, if you can start at the beginning of Kubu's journey and work through it with him, then so much the better.
DEATH OF THE MANTIS - Michael Stanley
When a Kalahari ranger is found dead in a dry ravine, his corpse surrounded by three Bushmen, the local police arrest the nomads. Botswana's Detective 'Kubu' Bengu investigates the case and is reunited with his old school friend Khumanego, a Bushman and advocate for his people. Khumanego claims the nomads are innocent and the arrests motivated by racist antagonism. The Bushmen are released but, soon after, another man is murdered in similar circumstances. Are the Bushmen to blame, or is it a copycat murder?
DEATH OF THE MANTIS is the third book in the Detective David 'Kubu' Bengu series from writing duo Stanley Trollip and Michael Sears, under the pen name of Michael Stanley. (For those that haven't read this series 'Kubu' means hippopotamus which is a commentary on Bengu's size.) I remember, before this book was completed, the authors explaining the life and plight of the Bushman, a race of people who come from the Kalahari Desert, who traditionally live a nomadic, simple existence with their own sacred places, rituals and beliefs - not unlike our own Aboriginal races lifestyle and plight. This aspect was part of the reason I've been greatly looking forward to this book, and I was not at all disappointed. The glimpse into Bushman culture was fascinating, and the other aspects of this series - the humour, the personalities, the mystery were solid.
Bengu and Khumanego were unlikely friends at school just taking their comparative physical attributes into account, but their friendship was based on their joint status as outsiders. Khumanego calls on Bengu after many years of no contact to seek his help when two Bushman hunters are arrested for the murder of a park ranger - an anathema to basic Bushman belief on the sanctity of all life. Meanwhile tribal elder Gobiwasi is revisiting the memories and places of his youth - preparing for his own death in the time-honoured tradition of Bushman culture.
At home things have changed for Bengu and his much loved wife Joy - who are now parents to daughter, Tumi. Tumi's arrival has undoubtedly caused disruption in Kubu's happy home life, and somewhat unexpectedly, Kubu seems to be a little distant, disinterested even in the turmoil his beloved Joy is feeling. This is, perhaps, the only area of these books that may cause a little disquiet in some fans of the series - it does seem that Kubu is being just a tad old-fashioned about this child raising business - absenting himself to follow the case, perhaps not as sensitive to Joy's difficulties as you'd have expected. Other than this slightly odd personal characteristic, Kubu is still Kubu. Implacable, inclined towards the cerebral end of detecting, Kubu is patient, careful and painstaking. But in DEATH OF THE MANTIS he also does something unexpected, something dangerously close to a major mistake,
As befits a continent the size of Africa, the range of crime fiction coming out there is widening, it seems, every day. DEATH OF THE MANTIS is a police procedural, with a distinct African feeling to the action, and whilst there are plenty of deaths and mayhem they aren't extremely violent, nor could you ever say they are on the cosier side. Perhaps the better definition is personality driven, police procedurals, with a real feeling of life in Botswana and highlighting of real, and important issues. Hence I found the window into the life of the Bushmen most rewarding. The similarities between much of their culture and our own local Aboriginal cultures was enlightening, and it was saddening to see the same sorts of insensibility and disregard in the other cultures of both countries.
Delivered with a touch of gentle wit and a personality that seems to fit perfectly in a hippopotamus of a man, Bengu feels intrinsically part of the landscape. The crimes that the authors work into their books come from that landscape, as do the investigations and the solutions. Botswana is as much a part of these stories, as is Bengu's family, his friends, colleagues and in the case of DEATH OF THE MANTIS the Bushmen, the victim's, and the motivation for these crimes which all seem to just be perfectly of the place that they come from. It will be interesting to see how fans of the series react to this book, but it would be even better to see new readers immerse themselves in Bengu's Botswana.
(All the books come with a glossary and a pronunciation guide for readers who like to know the details of what they are reading about).
LIKE CLOCKWORK - Margie Orford
When a beautiful young woman is found murdered on Cape Town's Seapoint promenade, police profiler Dr Clare Hart is drawn into the web of a brutal serial killer. As more bodies are discovered, Clare is forced to revisit memories of the horrific rape of her twin sister and the gang ties that bind the city's crime rings. Are the murders really linked to human trafficking, or is the killer just playing sick games with her?
Margie Orford lists, among many other activities, that she does Advocacy work for a Rape Crisis group in South Africa, so it's not very surprising LIKE CLOCKWORK looks very closely at the horrific consequences of rape and extreme violence against women. Because of that there's nothing particularly easy about reading this book, but it definitely fulfils one of my major preferences in crime fiction - which is to inform the reader. No matter how uncomfortable that information can sometimes be.
Dr Clare Hart is a police profiler who lives on Cape Town's Seapoint promenade, so the discovery of a young girl's body at that location has a very close, discomforting feel for her. There's something very brutal about the way that this girl died, and something oddly ritualistic about the way that the body was disposed of. The discovery of more young girls - all very similar in appearance - make for the sobering realisation that there is a serial sex killer in Cape Town. A city that's not unused to violence and, in particular sexual violence, as Clare and her twin sister are all too aware.
One of LIKE CLOCKWORK's strengths is the glimpse that the reader is given of the living victim - in this case Clare's sister and a young victim of gang rape and violence that Clare steps in to save. The other strength is the strong characters. Clare Hart is an interesting woman - dour, somewhat humourless, more than a little obsessive, she's working on a documentary set in Africa, but she also freelances as a police profiler (although there's not a lot of detail as to how she got that job or what her background is). The main police character - Riedwaan Faizal has enough twists on the standard scruffy, lone wolf policeman to make him just that little bit unexpected. He's a Muslim, alcoholic, dissolute, and a loner. Clare and Riedwaan share a good working relationship (which seems to be about the only one that they each have), as well as a somewhat uninspiring sexual relationship. As unappealing as they both would seem, they were both great characters - real, imperfect and quite human. There is, however, some sort of backstory between these two which was hinted at, but not really fleshed out in this book. But it is Clare and Riedwaan who carry the interest in the book, supported well by a cast of supporting characters including the state pathologist; the nasty brother of one of the victim's and the refugee chef's assistant in a sushi restaurant. As does the glimpses of Cape Town. A beautiful place, with seafront views and a comfortable lifestyle, where a dangerous killer is disposing of his victims. A modern city entertainment area, full of trendy bars and partying people, side by side with sexual exploitation and sleaze.
The weaker side of the book is the plot, which is a little disjointed. Perhaps the author has understandably tried to build in as many examples of the violence and exploitation experienced by women in particular. There's absolutely no doubt that these women's stories (including that of Clare's sister) are told gently and respectfully - there's no voyeuristic or sensationalist descriptions of appalling violence here, but, whilst that is happening the focus (and tension) of a serial killer stalking young women dissipates. Which leads to a final flurry of activity to expose him and save a young girl before it's too late.
Despite those plot inconsistencies, LIKE CLOCKWORK really gives the reader a feeling for Clare and Riedwaan's Cape Town - from it's physical beauty through to the gang violence that plagues the society. It also gives the reader glimpses into the diverse society that exists in South Africa. It certainly tempted me enough to order other books by this author.
DEAD-END ROAD - Richard Kunzmann
After two years' absence, Detective Harry Mason has rejoined the South African Police Service, but is now moved to the Serious and Violent Crimes unit.
DEAD-END ROAD is third novel Detective Harry Mason novel from South African author Richard Kunzmann - the earlier books are BLOODY HARVESTS and SALAMANDER COTTON. It was the first of this series that I've read, and I'm not sure that was necessarily a wise move.
It's been a couple of years since Harry's last outing and since then he has joined the elite Serious and Violent Crimes unit. They have been assigned to the investigation of the slaying of a minor politician and his family in a township west of Johannesburg. Unsolvable, until a tip sends the unit in pursuit of a vigilante group known as the Guardians headed by two notoriously violent brothers. Things get personally bad for Harry when he is shot during a dawn raid on a remote village in pursuit of the gang.
Part of the reason I picked up this book out of order was for a group read on a discussion list, and one of the participants in that discussion had read the earlier books - which was just as well, as this book didn't seem to work as a stand-alone. Harry, I'm told is a great central character, but as he was shot very early on in this book and didn't really make much of a return appearance he was very hard to assess. Perhaps it was this act that made the book seem to lack purpose or a single focus, but for much of the action I had absolutely and utterly no idea what was going on, who was who and what the whole point was. I actually had to read the blurb to remind myself what this investigation was supposedly all about as cameo appearances from a range of characters who appeared to have no context whatsoever kept coming and going and my grip on the whole thing got fuzzier and fuzzier.
Luckily I've now got the 2 earlier books in the series so I'll pick them up when I get a chance and see if the problem was just this book (which I suspect may have been the case). And the problem with this book could very well have been me - perhaps I wasn't working hard enough, having said that, I'm not sure I want to raise a sweat just to read a book.
A DEADLY TRADE - Michael Stanley
How can a man die twice? That's the question facing Detective 'Kubu' Bengu when a mutilated body is found at a tourist camp in northern Botswana. The corpse of Goodluck Tinubu displays the classic signs of a revenge killing. But when his fingerprints are analysed Kubu makes a shocking discovery: Tinubu is already dead. He was slain in the Rhodesian war thirty years ago.
There's something in the water (or maybe it's in the dust) in Africa at the moment. Whilst there has been a slowly increasing number of crime or mystery books set in Africa, there's now an increasing number written by African authors appearing for our enjoyment. Michael Stanley (the South African duo of long-time friends Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip), have now released their second book - A DEADLY TRADE (aka The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu), follow up to the very well received debut book - A CARRION DEATH.
Wrapped up in the well devised plot of a solid police procedural, A DEADLY TRADE is very much a novel of Africa. The setting for the crime obviously helps - a tourist bush camp, made up of tents, set on the banks of crocodile and hippo infested waters. The characters fit so well into that setting - Detective 'Kubu' Bengu the central investigator (Kubu means hippopotamus in Setswana) and Detective Sergeant Joseph 'Tatwa' Mooka (Tatwa - Giraffe in the same language) are the main investigation team, working to solve the disappearance of one man and the killing of two others at the camp. The brutal death of Tinubu is the most baffling of the killings - despite having been declared dead many years ago during the Rhodesian war, he seems to have subsequently lead a blameless and quiet life as a much respected teacher in Botswana. The other two elements that firmly set this book in Africa are the terminology, and a quintessential use of pacing. Whilst the general pace of the book is rapidfire, and the investigation moves constantly forward, there is a wonderful feeling of slowing, of consideration, of reflection whenever Kubu appears in the narrative. There's something about the writing of this character that imparts a feeling of consideration, intelligence and thoughtfulness, a large man physically, Kubu doesn't rush around no matter how hectic an investigation gets. He thinks, he ponders, he eats (very well). Connections have to be drawn between Kubu and Hercule Poroit in the way that they both approach an investigation, Montalbano in the way that they both approach the next meal. Kubu has a family though, and when his beloved wife Joy and sister-in-law Patience are threatened as a result of this investigation, the reader sees a little more than his size as a link to his nickname. Kubu enraged must be a sobering sight!
There is another level to A DEADLY TRADE and that is the glimpses into the ongoing effects of the Rhodesian War, the current day problems in Zimbabwe and the complicated relationship between that country, and the surrounding nations. There are also touches of the problems that beset all nations - drugs, violence and organised crime. The fallout from the Rhodesian War is something that greatly impacts on A DEADLY TRADE, and in the way of all very good story tellers, the implications of that are spelt out in the book without it being a lesson, rather it's a revelation.
A DEADLY TRADE (as with the first book A CARRION DEATH) is just simply good crime fiction. The crime occurs within a social situation and in a social reality that impacts on the actions of everyone. Small events in the past don't necessarily go unforgotten, and brutality often engenders brutality. Adding an African situation to that scenario adds a new twist to the events, at the same time that it shows that human reactions are human reactions, the world over.
Incidentally - there is a cast of characters at the front of the book to help if the unfamiliar names are phasing the reader, and a Glossary at the back which can help with understanding of some of the terminology. As part two in a series of books, it's often best if you've read the earlier book - so that you have a background to all the characters. Having said that, it would be possible to pick up A DEADLY TRADE and start - but that's no reason why you shouldn't also seek out A CARRION DEATH.
DEVIL'S PEAK - Deon Meyer
What makes a book special for you? For me it’s when the characters and the story stays with you after you’ve closed the book. All too often once the book is finished , the details begin to fade almost immediately. Not so with DEVIL’S PEAK by Deon Meyer
The alcoholic detective is something of a staple in crime fiction; to the extent that it frequently becomes a cliché. Not so Benny. Meyer writes about Benny’s struggle , self-recrimination and the realisation of the full impact of his drinking on his life, his family and his colleagues with a great deal of sensitivity . We feel Benny’s pain, guilt and despair as struggles through “one day at a time.”
DEVIL’S PEAK was written in Afrikaans and translated by K.L. Seegers. Not only is the translation spot on, but Seegers has retained enough of the Afrikaans slang and dialect for the reader to easily imagine an Afrikaans accent.
The sense of place and culture are also very strong. There is no way this book could be set anywhere but South Africa. DEVIL’S PEAK is not only well written with a nicely honed plot, but the author has also seamlessly incorporated a history lesson, a clear idea of diverse cultures and characters you won’t forget in a hurry. These all combine to make DEVIL’S PEAK a memorable read on many levels.
The second week of 2009 isn’t over yet and already I feel I’ve read one of my top books for 2009
A CARRION DEATH - Michael Stanley
Set in Botswana, A CARRION DEATH introduces the reader to, amongst a lot of other characters, Assistant Superintendent David Bengu. David is a big man. A very big man. As a young man, his friend Angus coined the nickname Kubu - which means Hippopotamus in Setswana. That friend belongs to one of the families in Botswana - his father, until he died, and his uncle have run the Botswana Cattle and Mining Company for many years. His friend - Angus and his twin sister Dianna are about to reach the age at which they inherit and they can take over from their uncle Cecil.
In the meantime a body is found in a wash near a waterhole. It seems the location has been carefully chosen - the waterhole is popular with local animals and there are a lot of predator animals who should have disposed of the remains before they were found. Unfortunately for the killers, a young scientist is working in the area and it is his team that make the discovery. There are some very odd things about this body - most likely a white man, there are very few missing white men in Botswana, and the body is missing an arm, perhaps to further confuse identification, but there are distinctive old breaks in both legs so surely it won't be that hard to match the body to a name. Kubu investigates, from the wash and the nearby tourist resort, back to the capital of Gaborone, through the boardrooms of big business and into the dust and dirt of the desert and the diamond mines.
A CARRION DEATH has a real feel of Africa for a number of reasons. The character of Kubu is somebody you can just see: a tall, stately, large, unflappable man methodically sailing through the investigation. The setting also means that whilst there is some concentration on the city locations, a large part of the book takes place in the desert, in the diamond mines, in the sand and dust and heat of the place. Maybe that is part of the reason why some parts of the book proceed slowly - at a stately pace - thinking more and more about that aspect makes me think that that was a quintessentially African thing. The investigation meanders at points, there's the occasional foray into various private lives, there is Kubu's relationship with his much loved wife and his own parents. It seemed, to somebody who has never been there, to give the entire book an overwhelming atmosphere of Africa. There are a lot of messages about the place and the people woven into the story as well and again, these seem on initial reading perhaps to have been padding, but if you think about it - this is a book set in a place and amongst a people of which the majority of us will know very little.
You will have to slow down to read this book, you will have to revel in the side roads and the meanderings. You may even have to forgive a few investigational hiccups that might not occur somewhere where speed and outcomes are all the rage. You will most likely also find that the last parts of the book drags slowly. But this was a good debut, with an interesting central character, supported by a fantastic location. Hopefully you won't be left like I was - with an overwhelming desire to try Kubu's favourite thirst quencher - a Steelworks. The glossary provided at the back of the books says this is made from cola tonic, ginger beer, soda water and bitters.
Michael Stanley is the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, two South African-born friends who have travelled frequently to the magnificent Botswana wilderness and A CARRION DEATH is their debut novel.