Written by Michael Stanley — Talk about explosive beginnings! This time it gets very personal indeed. Assistant Superintendent David Bengu in Botswana – aka Kubu, meaning hippo – is jolted out of a dream in which he’s eating. His boss, Makabu, tells him that his father has just been murdered. Kubu’s beloved father was showing the early symptoms of dementia in the previous book in the series, Deadly Harvest, so who could have wanted to see such a frail old man dead?
Mabaku refuses to allow Kubu to get involved in the investigation in any way and he grows angry, resentful and impatient towards his colleagues. He helps his mother handle the funeral arrangements, but then there is a break-in at his parents’ house. Clearly, someone thinks his father was hiding something of value.
Kubu is given a different case – the apparent suicide of a government official. It turns out the dead man was an informer for the US Embassy. Kubu can’t resist keeping an eye on the other investigation, though. Perhaps one or both of them is related to the generational divisions in the village of Shoshong and the surrounding area, where the Chinese are mining uranium.
It won’t surprise crime fiction lovers to learn that the two cases are linked. Kubu and his team unearth a story of corporate greed, government coruption and violent conflict between traditional and modern ways of life in an area of high unemployed and extreme poverty.
Michael Sears and Stanley Trollop write seamlessly as Michael Stanley, and are never afraid to tackle topical African issues. In A Deadly Trade it was political dissent, and in Death of the Mantis it was racism against Bushmen people. The trade in body parts for traditional medicine came to the fore in Deadly Harvest. In this one, it’s international mining companies maximising their profits at the expense of local people. The subjects are controversial and this is a series we always come back to with real pleasure.
Perhaps it’s the innate goodness and charm of Detective Kubu himself, his loving relationship with his family. Maybe it’s his human frailties such as his conviction that he can do a better job than his colleagues, or his inability to say no to good food and wine. Perhaps it’s the pitch-perfect recreation of the heat and dust of the Southern Africa landscape, and the mix of traditional and modern. It never feels like we are getting lectured about Botswana. It certainly has something to do with the writing style: the ease with which we switch from one point of view to another, without losing the authenticity of the different voices; the lively dialogue; the humour which lightens some of the grimmer situations.
The setting and characters more than make up for some slight plot holes. For instance, you might wonder whether it’s not an exaggeration to exclude Kubu completely from the investigation into his father’s death, even to the point where the other team members are not allowed to give him any updates. Plotting purists might argue that there is no need to send Kubu to New York to attend a conference and reconnect with a key witness, but this proves to be a great excuse to see Kubu operating outside his comfort zone and provides a delightful insight into cross-cultural differences.
The crimes being investigated are neither cosy nor minor, so it’s an ideal step up in grittiness for those who find the No1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, also set in Botswana, a little too gentle. I have no hesitation in adding this to a select group of crime novel series which really captivate us with their sense of place, lifestyle and engaging characters. Louise Penny and her Quebecois Three Pines village also comes to mind, or Martin Walker’s Bruno chef de police series set in South West France.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars