The South African authors Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip together make up Michael Stanley, and are becoming well-known for creating Botswana Police’s good-natured Detective ‘Kubu’ Bengu. They’ve been universally praised for their crime series, which has been labeled ‘sunshine noir’ by Yrsa Sigurdardottir, while Peter James describe their books as, “McCall Smith with a dark edge and even darker underbelly.” Previously Michael Stanley novels were imported from the US, but now the pair of authors have a UK publisher in the form of Orenda Books. Their first new title under Orenda, A Death in the Family, is out now for Kindle and will be available on 15 July in print, so we sent the authors some questions to find out more about their work.
When and how did you decide to write together, and have you ever regretted this decision?
We started writing together in 2003, but the idea for a mystery novel went back a lot further than that. Stan is a private pilot and in the 1980s we used to do fly-in trips to Botswana and Zimbabwe and go game watching. On one of these trips we saw a pack of hyenas pull down and tear apart a wildebeest, completely consuming it, flesh and bones, over a period of a few hours. It struck us – probably after a glass of wine or two – that that would be a great way for a murderer to get rid of a body. Everything would be destroyed. No body, no case. It took us another 15 or so years before we drafted the first chapter. But we always intended to do it as a collaborative project once we did get around to doing it!
Since then we’ve had an enormous amount of fun together, writing, doing the research, learning about the craft. We’ve certainly never regretted it for a moment.
You describe your writing relationship as a ‘long-term comfortable marriage’ – how does it work in practical terms?
We both do everything. We’ll brainstorm the plot – or at least a first pass of it – usually when we’re together for a research trip to Botswana or for book events. Once we feel that we can start writing, we’ll each take a first stab at a chapter, or suite of chapters. Then we’ll swap them over and get feedback, corrections, deletions. There may be more discussion. Then we take a second pass, and that process goes on, perhaps for 20 or more iterations. So we often say there really is a Michael Stanley writing the book, somewhere in the ether between Johannesburg and Minneapolis.
Of course, sometimes we do have disagreements. The most serious are usually over a word or two; we both know what we want the sentence to mean, but each of us has a slightly different formulation that he thinks is better. We call these ‘heated agreements’. Eventually if we really can’t agree, the one who wrote it first keeps his version, and we say we’ll leave it to the editor. Our editors have never changed one of these sentences!
How would you describe Detective Kubu to those readers who are not yet familiar with him?
Kubu is his nickname. It means hippopotamus in the local language and that gives you an idea about his size and appetite! But there’s another thing about hippos. They can be very dangerous – especially if you get between them and their objective, such as the safety of the river. Kubu is like that too, as a variety of criminals and murderers have discovered to their cost.
He’s not only fond of food but also wine, and he loves to sing, although he’s not good at it. He is passionate about his family – his parents, his wife Joy, their daughter Tumi, and his adopted daughter Nono. It’s a very close family, and that’s one of the things that our regular readers find attractive. As for his wife Joy, she is a caring companion and mother, but she has a backbone of steel. She loves Kubu more than anything, but she won’t let him get away with any nonsense!
Why did you decide to base your stories in Botswana rather than your native South Africa?
Our debut novel required a setting where you could get into a wildlife area without control gates and the like, where you could dump a body to be eaten by hyenas. In retrospect, we find Botswana a very intriguing base from which to explore southern African issues that are not inherited from apartheid, yet are still quite crucial to the region – blood diamonds, the legacy of the war in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, the plight of the Bushman people, murders for body parts for black magic and, in the fifth Kubu mystery A Death in the Family due out in July, the growing Chinese influence in Africa.
Was it a deliberate ploy to show a more realistic alternative to Alexander McCall Smith’s series?
We actually only found out about Alexander McCall Smith’s work when we were well into our first novel. We considered switching the location to Namibia, but decided against it because we know Botswana much better than Namibia and we felt the country was big enough for more than one detective. Our books are very different, in the sense that they are much darker and more realistic and, as you suggest, offer a less rosy view of modern Africa. Still, on one occasion we were chastised for setting our books in Botswana and told that ‘McCall Smith owns Botswana’. We doubt that the people there know that!
What are the books that influenced you most as you were growing up and what do you enjoy reading nowadays?
We both read a lot of mysteries now.
Michael grew up on Tolkien and science fiction. He still rereads the Lord of the Rings every ten years or so. Among his SF favourites were Isaac Asimov’s robot mysteries and that led to the whole crime-fiction genre. Modern favourites include John le Carré’s books for characterisation, style and plot.
Stanley was influenced by a wide variety of books ranging from Alice in Wonderland, the Hardy Boys, Teddy Lester’s Schooldays, On the Beach, Pride and Prejudice, The Tale of Two Cities, Heart of Darkness, Huckleberry Finn, and Treasure Island. Also the plays of William Shakespeare and Bernard Shaw, and the poems of Chaucer and Keats. More recently he was moved by the novels of John Fowles, Birdsong, The Life of Pi and, in non-fiction, by the horrifying King Leopold’s Ghost.
Do you envisage writing any standalone novels, a new series featuring someone other than Kubu, or working separately?
We are working on a stand-alone thriller, also partly set in Africa. Our protagonist there might feature in a series, but that’s not the intention at the moment. We don’t have any plans to write on our own right now, but who knows?
South African crime writing seems to be thriving at the moment and we’ve reviewed quite a few authors on our site. What other African writers should we be keeping an eye out for?
A cursory look at your review site turned up Malla Nunn and Deon Meyer, two successful and excellent writers who set their books here. From South Africa, we’d recommend Sifiso Mzobe, whose Young Blood won many awards. Also Mike Nicol, who writes powerful thrillers set in Cape Town. His latest, Power Play, is the best one yet and certainly worth a read. Margie Orford writes a different style of police procedural. We believe Water Music is her latest. Other South African authors with mysteries coming out soon include Jassy McKenzie and Joanne Richards. Other authors worth reading are Paul Mendelson, Andrew Brown, and Roger Smith, who writes very dark thrillers. By the way, Joanne and Michael write a monthly piece with interviews of African mystery authors in the ITW newsletter The Big Thrill.
Authors from further afield include Kwei Quartey, who sets his clever police procedurals in Ghana, and Richard Crompton with his Masai detective in Kenya.
Watch for the Crime Fiction Lover review of A Death in the Family soon. Read our review of Deadly Harvest here.