Written by Richard Crompton — We featured the author’s debut novel, The Honey Guide, in New Talent November last year, awarding it five stars for the way it skilfully mixed Kenyan tribal politics with African colonial history in a suspenseful whodunnit. Now Crompton returns in his next novel to feature the Maasai detective Mollel.
Mollel’s detective abilities allowed him to solve the mystery of the dead prostitute in The Honey Guide but his dogged determination to follow where the clues lead him has put one too many powerful noses out of joint. As punishment he has been demoted down to Detective Constable and sent to… well… Hell, to be precise. Hell is a tiny township of just a few thousand people on the edge of Hell’s Gate National Park. Basically, it’s in the middle of nowhere.
He has been partnered with Shadrack Kitui, a younger constable whom Mollel finds intensely irritating and difficult to understand. Kitui seems immature, imagining himself to be the star of Cobra Squad, Kenyan TV’s answer to Miami Vice. His signature gesture is to form his fingers into the shape of a gun and mouth the catchphrase cheesy kama ndizi – crazy cool, like a banana. If not overtly corrupt, he doesn’t seem overly concerned with due process. He prefers to rough up a graffiti artist rather than arrest him and accepts sex as payment from a brothel owner for protection.
On the other hand, Kitui shows genuine concern for Kibet, a game warden in the Kenya Wildlife Service whose sexuality makes her an outcast, and is clearly incensed by the gangsters who made profit from the misery of the Kenyans displaced following the civil war and used the threat of rape as a form of extortion. Kitui’s colleagues are also hard to read, alternating between over friendly and sullen caution, suspicious of why Mollel, a policeman with a reputation of being anti-corruption, should be forced upon them.
Mollel begins a murder investigation after a local woman is found drowned in the lake which abuts the garden of the hotel where the constables drink. He is driven by the guilty feeling that he could have prevented her death. That morning he and Kitui had been summoned to one of the enormous flower farms that export cheap roses to Europe to evict the dead woman for stealing. Later that morning Mollel had passed up an opportunity to help her when she was wandering the streets with all her worldly possessions carried on her back.
Kitui and Mollel soon discover that the woman was stealing in an attempt to pay off men who were threatening her with rape. His investigation leads him into danger, sets him against his colleagues, and he even ends up in prison himself. His fate in the hands of the notorious gang leader, Mdosi, and the story covers international poachers, police corruption and the International Criminal Court.
Crompton very much delivers on the promise of his debut, The Honey Guide. This is an excellent police procedural which satisfies everything demanded of the genre – an examination of daily life for the officers with all the obstacles that have to be overcome, the minor victories and bitter defeats. There are plenty of plot twists, and in Mollel we have a compelling protagonist. It seems more will be revealed as the series progresses, too.
But what really elevates the book is Crompton’s experience as a journalist. He is able to bring depth to the story by examining the difference between the law and justice, not just in everyday Kenyan life, but in international politics and in the way that globalism has not just brought wealth to the poorer countries but also suffering. In short, Hell’s Gate is both entertaining and thought-provoking.
Weidenfeld & Nicolson
CFL Rating: 5 Stars