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