Written by Michael Stanley — Through the auspices of Alexander McCall Smith and his wonderful creation Mma Precious Ramotswe of The No1 Ladies’ Detective Agency fame, I feel as if I’ve visited Botswana on many occasions. Now, thanks to Michael Stanley, I’m back there again, and it suddenly seems a much darker place.
Deadly Harvest is the fourth in a series of novels featuring David ‘Kubu’ Bengu, Assistant Superintendent in the Botswana Criminal Investigation Department. Kubu is Setswana for hippopotamus and like Mma Ramotswe, Detective Bengu is of ‘traditional’ build. He has a love for tea, cookies, and food in general, but although his body might be slow and cumbersome, Kubu’s brain is as sharp as a tack.
Set very much in the Africa of the 21st century, Deadly Harvest has a plot which doesn’t shy away from the continent’s problems, whether they be the scourge of AIDS or the fact that many people still believe in, and rely upon, the powers of witchcraft.
The story begins as a young orphan girl is offered a lift home by a mysterious man. Little Lesego is never seen again, but her disappearance is soon forgotten by local police, who believe she could have run away from the home of her aunt. Her sister thinks differently, although no-one will listen to her. Soon after, a second girl disappears and her distraught father, Witness Maleng, leads the fruitless search for her.
It appears to be another case destined to go nowhere, but new detective Samantha Kharma sees similarities to an old case from her childhood. She is the green newcomer, and a woman, which makes it hard for her to be taken seriously, but Samantha believes the girls are being taken for muti, the traditional form of African medicine which usually employs plants and sometimes animals, but which unscrupulous witch doctors make with human parts for a supposedly more potent brew. The concoction is sold at a hugely inflated price.
Samantha and Kubu combine and soon have another case to solve after local politician Bill Marumo is murdered after winning an election. Muti with – human ingredients – is found hidden in his home. Witness is spotted running from the scene, but what is his connection to Marumo? Where are the bodies of the missing children? And who is the shadowy witch doctor behind the tainted muti?
Deadly Harvest has all the ingredients of a good old fashioned police procedural, but with the sights, sounds and scents of Botswana thrown in. Joints authors Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip were both born in South Africa and their local knowledge imbues the book with an authentic voice which is hugely appealing. I’m a huge fan of Alexander McCall Smith’s Botswana series, and love the cosy familiarity of it all, whereas the Michael Stanley pairing move the action out of the sunshine and into the deepest shadows to reveal a much less romantic, grittier view of the country. Both series of books have their place in the crime fiction genre, but are worlds apart.
Kubu is a fine creation – a lumbering man with a genial air who has a touch of the Detective Columbo about him. However, like the bumbling West Coast television detective of the 1970s, you underestimate the man at your peril. Samantha Kharma is introduced in this book and provides a neat foil to Kubu. She is young, ambitious, and female. The pair make an odd, but well balanced team. I hadn’t met Kubu before but I’m definitely putting his earlier appearances in print on my ‘to read’ list.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars