Category Archives: Michael Stanley

Somebody Help Me Tame This Animal*

Creating a MonsterOne of the things that crime fiction teaches is that we’re never quite as much in control as we might like to think we are. And that’s an unsettling thought. But it can make for solid suspense and tension in a crime novel. There are lots of cases for instance where characters think they can manage a situation or even another character, only to find they’ve created a monster as the saying goes. Here are a few examples to show you what I mean.

In Michael Stanley’s A Carrion Death, Botswana CID Assistant Director David ‘Kubu’ Bengu is called to the scene when a body is discovered not far from Dale’s Camp. It’s hard to determine the cause of death at first, since hyenas found the body before humans did. And on the surface it looks as though the victim simply strayed too far from camp and was attacked by animals. But Kubu isn’t so sure, and forensic evidence supports the idea that this may have been murder. The trail leads to the Botswana Cattle and Mining Company (BCMC), and that creates its own problems. The Botswana government considers BCMC essential for its economy, and there’s no desire to embarrass anyone who works there, especially not those at the top. But then there’s another murder, also with company connections. And another. In the end, Kubu and his team find out who’s behind the murders and how it all relates both to past history and to BCMC. And it turns out that someone’s ‘business arrangement’ has created a monster.

There’s also a sort of arrangement that leads to a monster being created in Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack. Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano is a Buenos Aires cop in the Argentina of the late 1970s, a time and place when it’s very dangerous to navigate life. Early one morning, he gets a call about two bodies that have been found by a river bank. Both murders bear the hallmark of an Army hit, and Lescano knows the consequences of speaking up about them. But he also finds a third body – one that wasn’t reported. It turns out that this dead man is Elías Biterman, a successful moneylender and pawnbroker. Lescano soon learns that some very important people do not want the truth about this murder to come out, and there is a great deal of pressure on him to leave it all alone. But he perseveres and we learn the truth about what really happened. This murder and others that occur in the novel are in part the tragic consequence of someone who didn’t have nearly as much control of a situation as was thought.

That’s also true in Åsa Larsson’s The Savage Altar (AKA Sun Storm). Very late one night, Sanna Stråndgard discovers the body of her brother Viktor in the Church of the Source of All our Strength. Stråndgard was a very popular, almost cult-like figure among the locals of Kiruna and outlying areas, and he was becoming very well-known in the rest of Sweden too. At first, there doesn’t seem to be much motive, since he had so many devotees. Sanna is distraught, and turns to her former friend, Stockholm attorney Rebecka Martinsson, for help. Martinsson has no desire to return to her home town of Kiruna, but for Sanna’s sake she reluctantly does so. Then, the police get some evidence that Sanna herself may be the killer. She claims that she’s innocent though, and begs Martinsson to defend her. For various reasons Martinsson would really like to have no part in this. But Sanna has two daughters and Martinsson doesn’t want them turned over to the state. So she agrees to represent Sanna. That’s how she meets police investigators Anna-Maria Mella and Sven-Erik Stålnacke. At first uneasily, but later willingly, they work find out who the killer is. In the end, we see a clear example of how proverbial monsters can be created.

In Sulari Gentill’s  A Few Right Thinking Men, we meet artist Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair and his brother Wilfred. They’re very different people and often don’t get along. Both are devastated though when their uncle, also named Rowland, is bludgeoned one night. At first, the police suspect that the victim’s housekeeper may have had something to do with the killing, but Rowly is certain she’s completely innocent. So he begins to ask questions. He soon learns that his uncle’s murder might be connected with a far-right group called the New Guard. This group seeks to stamp out communism and any left-leaning sympathy and create a new society run by ‘a few right thinking men.’ Rowly decides that the only way to learn the truth about the murder is to infiltrate the group, so he contrives a commission from the group’s leader, Colonel Eric Campbell, to paint his portrait. Little by little, Rowly learns the truth about what happened to his uncle. And as he gets closer to the group’s top members, he also learns the group’s ultimate plans. This too is a case of a monster being created.

Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer is the story of poet Tapani Lehtinen and his wife Johanna, who is a news reporter. In their world, climate change has wreaked havoc on the world, leaving millions of climate refugees. Little is done to maintain order and society is quickly descending into anarchy. Against this backdrop, Johanna is pursuing a story about a man who calls himself the Healer. He claims to be responsible for the murders of several CEOs of corporations that he believes are guilty of the ongoing destruction of the planet. The idea of the murders is to avenge those affected by this devastation and to call attention to it. When Johanna disappears, Lehtinen decides that the best way to trace her is to follow the story she was working on, and he begins to do just that. Little by little he learns the truth about the Healer and as he does so, he also gets closer to knowing what happened to his wife. In the end we see that someone created a monster, which led to some tragic and unintended consequences.

Katherine Howell’s Silent Fear introduces readers to Paul Fowler. One hot afternoon, he and some friends are tossing a football around in a local park when he suddenly collapses and dies. Soon enough it’s established that he was shot, sniper-style, and New South Wales Police detectives Ella Marconi and Murray Shakespeare investigate. They begin with Fowler’s ex-wife Trina and his friends and business associates. As they interview and follow up with these people they learn that Fowler had a hidden side to his life and that some people aren’t telling everything they know about it. When the police finally find out who killed Fowler and why, we see that sometimes, when you create a monster, it turns on you…

There are a lot of other examples of this plot point in crime fiction. It’s an effective one for the genre, and I’ve only had space here for a few instances. Your turn.

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Three Days’ Grace’s Animal I Have Become.

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Filed under Antti Tuomainen, Åsa Larsson, Ernesto Mallo, Katherine Howell, Michael Sears, Michael Stanley, Stanley Trollip, Sulari Gentill

Watcha Gonna Do When They Come For You*

PoliceProceduralsFor many people, there’s something fascinating about what police do, and how they go about their jobs. Perhaps it’s the huge number of cop shows on TV, or perhaps it’s the image of the cop making things safe and putting the ‘bad guys’ away, so to speak. Or it could be the chance to get a look ‘behind the scenes’ of a unique setting. Perhaps it’s something else. Whatever it is, police procedurals have become a popular staple in crime fiction.

Interestingly enough, the police procedural as we think about it now is newer than some of the other sub-genres in crime fiction. For example, the private detective novel has been around since the days of Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. But that makes sense. Modern police forces weren’t really put together until the 19th Century and it took even longer for them to become the kinds of police forces we think of today. If you want to know more about 19th Century police forces, check out K.B. Owen’s terrific blog/website. She’s an expert on the era.

Certainly there’ve been police officers mentioned in many classic/Golden Age novels. There Agatha Christie’s Chief Inspector Japp, there’s Stuart Palmer’s Oscar Piper and there’s Josephine Tey’s Alan Grant, to name just three. There’s also of course Ellery Queen’s Inspector Richard Queen, and Rex Stout’s Inspector Cramer. But the police procedural novel as we think of it now really started a bit later.

There isn’t universal agreement about which book counts as the first police procedural, but Lawrence Treat’s 1945 novel V as in Victim is often brought up. This is just my opinion, so feel free to differ if you do, but for my money, the series that that really established the police procedural as a sub-genre was Evan Hunter/Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels. Beginning with 1956’s Cop Hater, the series went on for decades, almost until Hunter’s death. In that series, we see quite a lot more of life at a police station/precinct than we’d seen in previous kinds of crime novels. What’s more, this series doesn’t just follow one cop going after one criminal or criminal gang. There’s an ensemble cast in this series, and we follow not just the individual cases they investigate, but also their personal lives. The 87th Precinct series has had a profound influence on the genre in general and of course on the police procedural.

Another set of groundbreaking police procedurals is Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s ten-book Martin Beck series. Those novels follow Stockholm-based Martin Beck and his police colleagues as they investigate murders, robberies, and more. They also highlight a variety of social issues such as unequal distribution of wealth, corruption and other issues. Like the 87th Precinct series, this one also addresses the personal lives of the characters. For many people, the Martin Beck series is the quintessential police procedural series.

In the last few decades, the police procedural as a sub-genre has gotten very diverse as it’s been taken in new directions. For instance, some police procedurals still feature an ensemble cast of characters. Fans of Fred Vargas’ Inspector Adamsberg series and Arnaldur Indriðason’s Inspector Erlendur series, for instance, will know that those novels follow the lives of several of the characters, both in and outside working hours. So does Frédérique Molay’s Nico Sirksy series (I hope more of them will be translated into English soon).

Other series focus more on one or a few cops. For instance, in Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch series, the spotlight is mostly on Bosch. We certainly learn about other characters, and there are several story arcs involving them. But the primary emphasis is on Bosch. You could say the same thing about Karin Fossum’s Konrad Sejer series. We do learn about other characters, but the focus in that series is on Sejer’s professional and personal life. Another example of this is Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series. While there are story arcs and scenes involving other characters, it’s Rebus who’s the ‘star of the show.’

One major development in the police procedural series is that it’s gone worldwide. And that means that the different series have taken on the distinctive atmosphere of their settings. I’m thinking for instance of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip’s David ‘Kubu’ Bengu series, which takes place in Botswana and which they write as Michael Stanley. There’s also Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen Cao series, and Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series. And that’s just to name three of the many police procedural series that are seasoned by their cultures.

Another development is the diversity in the kinds of people who feature in police procedural series. Women, for instance, are quite frequently police protagonists now. That’s what we see in Katherine Howell’s Ella Marconi series, Martin Edwards’ Lake District series and Anya Lipska’s Natalie Kershaw/Janusz Kiszka series. Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan series is another example. That increasing diversity shows up in other ways too. There are gay cops, disabled cops and cops with all sorts of eccentricities.

Despite all of this variety, though, you could argue that there are still some basic things that define a police procedural series. One is that it focuses on police stations, bases or precincts and the people who work there. There are often sub-plots and story arcs that show us the cop’s off-duty life, but there is an emphasis on the investigation and on life as a police officer. Another, at least to me, is that the police procedural features a certain kind of investigation style that involves interpreting evidence, interviewing witnesses and suspects and so on. In that sense it’s quite different to the amateur sleuth, who doesn’t have the power of the law, or the PI sleuth, who goes about investigations in yet another way. Police culture, policies and the like have a strong impact on the way cops go about their jobs, and that makes their investigations distinctive.

What do you think? If you read police procedurals, what is their appeal to you? Which ones do you like the best (I know I’ve only mentioned a few of them) What, to you, makes a police procedural series a good one? If they put you off, why? If you write police procedurals, what made you choose that sub-genre?

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is line from Inner Circle’s Bad Boys.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anya Lipska, Arnaldur Indriðason, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ed McBain, Edgar Allan Poe, Ellery Queen, Evan Hunter, Frédérique Molay, Fred Vargas, Ian Rankin, Jane Casey, Josephine Tey, K.B. Owen, Karin Fossum, Katherine Howell, Lawrence Treat, Louise Penny, Maj Sjöwall, Martin Edwards, Michael Connelly, Michael Sears, Michael Stanley, Per Wahlöö, Qiu Xiaolong, Stanley Trollip, Stuart Palmer

Mommy’s All Right, Daddy’s All Right, They Just Seem a Little Weird*

Dysfunctional Wealthy FamiliesLet’s face it; dysfunction and worse can happen in any family, no matter what the family’s socioeconomic level is, or where the family lives. But as any crime fiction fan can tell you, it seems that the richer and more powerful a family is, the more likely it is to be plagued by real dysfunction. Not being a family therapist or psychologist, I can’t say exactly why that is. It may be the pressure of being at the top of the proverbial social tree. It may be that being able to have anything one wants removes social restraints. Or it may be something else. But whatever the reason, there seems to be an awful lot of emptiness, unhappiness and worse among wealthy and influential families. Just a quick look at crime fiction should show you what I mean (but you probably know it already).

Agatha Christie addresses this issue in several of her novels. For example, there’s 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGilliguddy Saw!). When Elspeth McGillicuddy witnesses a woman being strangled on a train, no-one wants to believe it really happened. There is no body, and no-one’s reported anyone missing who fits the description of the victim. But Mrs. McGillicuddy’s friend Miss Marple believes her. Miss Marple establishes that if there was a body, it probably ended up on the grounds of Rutherford Hall, the property of the Crackenthorpe family. With help from her friend professional housekeeper Lucy Eyelesbarrow, Miss Marple discovers the connection between the dead woman and the Crackenthorpes. In the process, we get to know the various members of this wealthy family, and there’s plenty of dysfunction, spite and worse to go round. And that’s just one instance of Christie’s treatment of the topic (I know, I know, Christie fans. There’s the Leonides family, the Lee family, the Abernethie family…)

Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe gets involved with a very wealthy, powerful and dysfunctional family in The Big Sleep. It all starts when General Guy Sternwood hires Marlowe to stop book dealer Arthur Geiger from blackmailing the family. Marlowe goes to visit Geiger only to find out that he’s too late: Geiger’s just been murdered. In the same room is Sternwood’s daughter Carmen. Is she a murderer or a victim? She’s in such a dazed (or drugged) state that she can’t be much help, but Marlowe doesn’t think she’s a killer. So he gets her away from the scene as quickly as possible. He thinks his involvement with the family ends there, but really, it’s only beginning. One of the threads that run through this novel is the decadence and dysfunction in the family. Here for instance is what Sternwood says about his own daughters:

 

‘Neither of them has any more moral sense than a cat. Neither have I. No Sternwood ever had.’

 

Not exactly a healthy family…

Neither is the Wynant family, whom we meet in Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man. Nick and Nora Charles have come from their home in San Francisco to visit New York. Dorothy Wynant happens to spot Nick and immediately asks for his help. She hasn’t seen her father Claude since his not-exactly-amicable breakup with her mother Mimi, and she’d like to track him down. Nick is at first reluctant to take on the case. Then, Claude Wynant’s secretary Julia Wolf is murdered and before he knows it, Nick’s drawn into the case. He’s also drawn into the Wynant family circle and it’s not exactly a happy one. For one thing, Mimi Wynant cannot seem to tell the truth about anything. And there’s all sorts of dislike and spite in the family too. That dysfunction makes for an interesting thread of tension in the novel.

Michael Dibdin’s Ratking introduces us to the Miletti family. This is an extremely powerful family that basically runs things in and around Perugia. Then, family patriarch Ruggiero Miletti is abducted. With a family that powerful, the police naturally get involved right away, even though the family is wary of ‘interference.’ Finally, the Perugia Questura requests assistance and Aurelio Zen is seconded from Rome to take over the investigation. As he gets to know the members of the family, we learn just how much dysfunction there is in the group. Each member has a personal agenda, and the layers of hatred, greed and malice run very deep. Not at all the kind of family with whom one wants to spend holidays…

That’s also true of the Hofmeyr family, whom we meet in Michael Stanley’s A Carrion Death. This very powerful family has the controlling interest in the Botswana Cattle and Mining Company (BCMC), which is considered extremely important to the country’s economy. When the body of an unknown man is discovered near rural Dale’s Camp, Botswana CID Assistant Director David ‘Kubu’ Bengu launches an investigation to find out who the man was and how exactly he died. It’s not very long before Bengu finds a connection between the dead man and BCMC, so he begins to suspect that someone at the company may have had something to do with the death. This brings him into direct conflict with the wealthy and powerful Hofmeyrs, to say nothing of the Botswana authorities who have a vested interest in the company’s success. As Bengu and his team get to the truth, we get to know the Hofmeyr family, and there is plenty of dysfunction in it. What makes this case even more interesting is that the family tries hard to maintain an image of unity.

In Vicki Delany’s Winter of Secrets, we meet the members of the Wyatt-Yarmouth family. Wendy Wyatt-Yarmouth and her brother Jason take a skiing holiday with four friends in Trafalgar, British Columbia. Tragedy strikes when the SUV the group has rented goes off an icy road into the Upper Kootenay River. Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith and Sergeant John Winters investigate what first seems like a tragic accident. In one sense it is; Jason Wyatt-Yarmouth is proved to have died as a result of the plunge into the river. Then it turns out that his passenger and friend Ewan Williams had already been dead for several hours when the accident occurred. Now there’s a possible murder case and Smith and Winters look more deeply into it. That’s when they get to know the members of the Wyatt-Yarmouth family. Drs. Jack and Patricia Wyatt-Yarmouth are wealthy and influential, and Jack uses that fact in every way possible. But as we learn, that money hasn’t resulted in any real happiness in the family.

Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon PI Russell Quant meets a rich but very dysfunctional family in Tapas on the Ramblas. Charity Wiser is not just a wealthy heiress, but a successful business executive, and her family has quite a lot of power and influence. She claims someone in her family is trying to kill her, and hires Quant to find out who it is. She invites Quant along on a family getaway cruise with the idea that he’ll get to know the various members of the family and figure out who the would-be murderer is. During the cruise there are two attempted murders. Then ‘would be’ turns real when there is a killing. As Quant gets to the truth about the events on the cruise, he also learns more about the Wiser family, and a lot of it isn’t very happy. He has to negotiate a proverbial minefield of jealousy, spite, repressed anger and more as he works to solve the case.

And then there’s the powerful Atwal family, the focus of Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night. One awful night, thirteen members of the family are poisoned and several stabbed. The house is burned too, presumably to hide the evidence of murder. Only one member seems to have survived: fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal. She’s the most likely suspect, but she hasn’t said anything since the tragedy. Besides, there are also clues that she may have been a victim who just happened to survive the attack. Social worker Simran Singh is asked to travel from her home in Delhi to the Punjab town where the Atwals lived to try to get Durga to talk about what happened. As Simran slowly unpeels the layers of the incident, she learns more and more about the Atwals. Superficially wealthy, successful and powerful, they were also a desperately unhappy and dysfunctional family. That dysfunction plays a major role in Durga’s view of life and in a lot of what happens in the novel.

There are of course lots of other examples in crime fiction (and other fiction too) of that correlation between wealth/power and real dysfunction. Maybe it’s not so bad to be a ‘regular’ family…

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Cheap Trick’s Surrender.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Kishwar Desai, Michael Dibdin, Michael Stanley, Raymond Chandler, Vicki Delany

Now Give Me Money (That’s What I Want)*

FundingThe one thing that many projects (new business ventures, new research studies, non-profit groups, etc.) have in common is that they need to be funded. Getting funding for a project is a tricky business. The project itself has to be appealing. And then too, people who provide finding want to be reasonably sure of their investment. So if they’re funding businesses, they want a reasonable chance that the business will be a success. If they’re helping to underwrite a charity, then that charity has to genuinely serve its intended cause, and so on. Because so much is at stake, funding can cause a lot of tension. Little wonder it’s woven into crime fiction as it is. It’s a definite motive for murder.

In Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AkA Funerals Are Fatal), wealthy family patriarch and business magnate Richard Abernethie suddenly dies. His family gathers for the funeral and the reading of the will. That’s when Abernethie’s younger sister Cora Lansquenet says that he was murdered. At first, everyone hushes her up, and even Cora encourages them not to pay attention to her. But the next day she herself is murdered. Now everyone is sure that she was right, and was silenced before she could tell what she knew. Family attorney Mr. Entwhistle asks Hercule Poirot to investigate and Poirot agrees. Between them, the two men interview the various members of the family and find no shortage of motives. For instance, Abernethie’s niece Susan Banks wants to open her own cosmetics business and beauty salon. For that, she needs a financial backer and her share of Abernethie’s estate fits the bill nicely. Susan’s cousin Rosamund Shane and her husband want to take up an option in a play and perhaps even back their own production. Again, that project needs underwriting. There are other ‘underwriting’ motives too, and it’s interesting how it’s that aspect of finance rather than pure greed that drives several of the characters in the novel.

Vicki Delany’s In the Shadow of the Glacier also includes an important financial-backing theme. Trafalgar, British Columbia Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith’ discovers the body of wealthy developer Reginald Montgomery in an alley one night. She’s assigned to work with Sergeant John Winters on the case, and the two begin looking into motives. One that comes up early in the investigation is that Montgomery and his business partner Frank Clemmins are involved in plans for the Grizzly Resort in the area. It’s to be an upmarket spa and holiday destination that will hopefully bring tourist money to the area. But the funding could be difficult. For one thing, not everyone supports the resort; there are plenty of people who believe it’ll ruin the environment. For another, there’s an ugly civic battle going on between those who want to build a Peace Garden in Trafalgar in memory of those who opposed the Vietnam War, and those who do not want the garden. That could mean tourists won’t come, and the unsettled atmosphere is not exactly conducive to investment. For these reasons, Clemmins didn’t want the development company to be too heavily financially involved in the resort. While the main theme of this novel isn’t garnering the financial backing for the Grizzly Resort, it’s an interesting and taut sub-plot.

Funding is also a theme in Michael Stanley’s A Carrion Death. The body of an unknown man is found in a remote Botswana preserve. David ‘Kubu’ Bengu, Assistant Superintendent of the Botswana CID is called in to investigate. The first step is to try to identify the man, but that proves quite difficult, as hyenas haven’t left much for the forensics team. As a part of the investigation, Kubu and his team try to trace the owner of the vehicle that brought the body to the place where it was found. That vehicle could very well be one belonging to the Botswana Cattle and Mining Company (BCMC). As the team begins to explore that connection, there’s another death. This one too has a connection to the mine. And there’s a disappearance. Now Kubu is convinced that something’s going on at the mine and he digs more deeply into its activities. It turns out that the mine is poised for some major changes that, if they go right, could mean a lot of money. And financial backing and motives play a big role in that. So, needless to say, CEO Cecil Hofmeyr wants as little bad publicity as possible. And he and his company have a close relationship with some highly-placed Botswana politicians, who see the company as extremely important to Botswana’s economic future. It’s an interesting look at the way funding can depend on a company’s reputation.

We also see the politics of funding in Martin Edwards’ The Hanging Wood. DCI Hannah Scarlett and her team look into two related deaths. One is the apparent suicide of Orla Payne. The other is the twenty-year-old disappearance of her brother Callum. One night, ACC Lauren Self insists that Scarlett attend a ‘command performance’ Awards Dinner. Scarlett’s not interested in attending. For one thing, she’s no fan of Lauren Self or of ‘glory-grabbing.’ For another, she would rather be out there solving cases than going to a lot of glittering events. But this one’s important. Several local business and civic leaders will be there and their funding is an important source of support for the constabulary. Scarlett may not like such events but she’s pragmatic enough to know that they matter, so she goes. While she’s there, she can’t help but see how good Self is at ‘mixing and mingling’ with everyone in order to talk up the department and hopefully get more funding. It’s a good thing Scarlett goes to the event too, as it helps her in her case.

And then there’s the New Life Children’s Centre, which we learn about in Angela Savage’s The Half Child. Located in Pattaya, Thailand, It’s a child care facility and home for abandoned children who are awaiting adoption.  For Frank Harding, who co-ordinates the foreign adoptions, it’s also a place he can use for the purpose of converting as many people as possible to Christianity. The facility is supported by the Thai government and some wealthy donors. So it’s in everyone’s interest that the agency have a good reputation. That’s one reason why a lot of people get jittery when Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney begins to ask questions. She’s been hired by Jim Delbeck to find out what happened to his daughter Maryanne. Maryanne Delbeck was an Australian volunteer at New Life when she jumped (or fell, or was pushed) off the roof of the building where she was living. It’s possible that her death might have been connected with the work she was doing, so Keeney goes undercover as a volunteer to find out more about the facility. She finds that there’s a lot more going on at New Life than most people know. If Maryanne knew about it too, that could be a powerful motive for murder, as a child care facility with a bad reputation will not get funding, even if it isn’t forcibly closed by law. On a side note, there’s also an interesting discussion here of government funding of volunteer groups.

Funding, grants, ‘seed money,’ it’s all important for business plans, charitable agencies and facilities and universities, among other places. So it’s no surprise that it’s a source of real tension and conflict. Just perfect for a crime novel…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Berry Gordy and Janie Bradford’s Money (That’s What I Want).

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Martin Edwards, Michael Stanley, Vicki Delany

In The Spotlight: Michael Stanley’s A Carrion Death

SpotlightHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Today we have a two-for-one special on here at Confessions of Mystery Novelist... Writing team Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip write their David ‘Kubu’ Bengu series as Michael Stanley and through it, give readers an authentic look at life in modern-day Botswana. To show you what I mean, let’s turn the spotlight on the first in their Kubu series, A Carrion Death.

The story begins at rural Dale’s Camp, when assistant camp manager and ranger Andries Botha escorts Professor of Ecology Bengani Sibisi on a short research trip. To their shock, the men discover the remains of an unknown man. Hyenas have gotten there first, so there’s not much left by which they can really identify the man. Botswana CID Assistant Director David ‘Kubu’ Bengu is called to take the details of the discovery and launch an investigation. At first it doesn’t seem like much of an investigation is needed, short of identifying the man. The most likely explanation is that the man wandered off too far and was attacked by animals. But soon enough, forensics evidence suggests that the man’s death might have been murder.

That evidence shows that the man was brought to the remote area where he was found by a vehicle that may have belonged to the Botswana Cattle and Mining Company (BCMC). If that’s true, then someone associated with the company may be connected with the victim’s death. Kubu already knows about BCMC, since he knows Angus Hofmeyr, who will gain control of the company on his thirtieth birthday.

The company is considered very important to Botswana’s development, and the directors have friends in the highest places. So Kubu and his boss Jacob Mabaku know that it will be very risky to insinuate anything negative about BCMC or its employees. Nonetheless, all of the trails in this case continue to lead back to this firm. For instance, there’s the murder of a man who was a business associate of current Chair of the Board Cecil Hofmeyr. And there’s another death, also with possible company connections.

As Kubu and his team untangle this case, they uncover several company secrets. They also learn that the murders can all be traced to one source. In the end, the murders have their roots in past history, psychology and the wish for power.

In some important ways, this is a police procedural. So readers follow along as Kubu and his team members gather and make sense of the evidence, interview people, and work with colleagues in South Africa and Angola to find out the truth. That aspect – the international cooperation – adds an interesting dimension to the police work involved in solving certain crimes.

This is a distinctly Botswana story, and it’s not necessarily the gentle Botswana that fans of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series know. The country is difficult and dangerous, especially if you don’t know what you’re doing. And in some cases, it’s a violent place. And yet, it’s got a great deal of unique natural beauty. Here’s what Kubu’s thoughts are:

 

‘When he got to the CID headquarters, he discovered that the baboons had come down from Kgale Hill and were clambering all over the buildings. They were climbing on the wall around the complex, rummaging in the gardens, and even balancing on the edges of the metal barrels holding water at the neighboring building site. Kubu liked the baboons. They cheered him up. Where else, he thought with satisfaction, would you find the CID headquarters of a respected police force used as a Sunday playground for baboons?’

 

Throughout the novel, we get a strong sense of the culture of Botswana too. There’s even an interesting plot thread that involves the balance between modern science and learning and traditional witch doctor lore and ancient beliefs. There’s also an interesting look at the Botswana mining industry as well as a peek at the international diamond business.

This is the start of a series, and Sears and Trollip lay the groundwork with a cast of characters who fit the context. There’s CID Director Mabaku, who has to balance catching criminals with the political realities of dealing with highly-placed people. He’s irascible at times, and not shy about dressing down his subordinates. But as Kubu reflects, he does the right thing. He’s not at all a stereotypical ‘horrible boss,’ or sycophantic politics-player. There’s also Joy, Kubu’s beloved wife. In some ways she’s a traditional Botswana wife. But she is distinctly her own person, and it’s quite clear that her husband respects her and tries to listen to what she says. There are other characters too who add layers of interest to the story.

And then there’s the character of Kubu himself. His nickname means ‘hippopotamus’ in Setswana, and the name suits him. He’s large (and he does enjoy his food and wine). He’s a bit slow-moving (‘though not lazy). And he seems lumbering on the surface. But anyone who knows about hippos knows that they are not to be underestimated and that’s true of Kubu. He is observant and he’s been taught to really see things and let them speak to him, if I may put it that way. In fact he’s very respectful of traditional ways of knowing and seeing, and in some cases observant of traditional Botswana customs. He’s tenacious, too, and not afraid to take risks. It’s not hard to be on his side as he goes up against some very vicious and dangerous people.

And there is vicious violence in this novel. There are some extremely nasty characters in the story and they do not hesitate to kill. Readers who prefer quieter novels where there is perhaps only one, ‘offstage’ murder will want to know that there are several deaths in this novel. And they’re not all ‘offstage.’ That said though, the violence is not depicted in a lot of detail, and the authors are not gratuitous (at least not in my opinion, so feel free to differ with me if you do).

The mystery itself is held together logically and has a credible explanation. That said though, there are several threads to it, so readers will want to pay close attention. There is also a cast of characters, so readers will be glad to know that there’s a helpful character ‘cheat sheet’ at the front of the novel.

A Carrion Death is a unique kind of police procedural set in a distinctive and compelling setting. It features an appealing protagonist and a fascinating look at Botswana. But what’s your view? Have you read A Carrion Death? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 

 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday 11 November/Tuesday 12 November – Once Upon a Lie – Jill Paterson

Monday 18 November/Tuesday 19 November – Line of Sight – David Whish-Wilson

Monday 25 November/Tuesday 26 November – The Chalk Circle Man – Fred Vargas

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Filed under A Carrion Death, Michael Sears, Michael Stanley, Stanley Trollip