Category Archives: Kwei Quartey

I Drank a Cup of Herbal Brew*

Many people prefer natural remedies when they’re ill, and natural solutions for well-being. So, they go to herbalists and herbal shops, rather than to regular pharmacies. In fact, those sorts of health care products are so popular that lots of pharmacies stock them as alternatives to other sorts of medicines.

Herbalism has a long history, too. For millennia, people relied on herbalists, because there weren’t antibiotics and other modern medicines. And even now that there are, people still use herbal remedies. So, it’s not surprising that herbalism and herbalists have found their way into crime fiction. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll think of more than I ever could.

In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, we are introduced to Meredith Blake. As the older of two brothers, he inherited his family’s home and property. He had a real passion for herbs and herbalism, even dedicating a room to his special interest. He’d collected all sorts of information on the topic, too; and, although he wasn’t sought out for cures, he had a lot of background. Then, disaster struck. A long-time friend of the family, famous painter Amyas Crale, was poisoned one afternoon. And it turned out that the poison came from Meredith’s own supplies. He himself wasn’t accused of the murder, but has felt responsible since then. In fact, he shut up his room and stopped working with herbs and other plants. Crale’s wife, Caroline, was arrested, tried, and convicted in the matter, and died in prison a year later. There was plenty of evidence against her, and everyone assumed she was guilty.  Now, sixteen years later, the Crale case is being re-opened. Crale’s daughter, Carla, believes her mother was innocent, and wants her name cleared. She asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter, and he agrees. To find out the truth, he interviews the five people (including Blake) who were on the scene at the time of the murder. From those interviews, and from written accounts that each person writes, Poirot finds out who really killed Amyas Crale, and why.

Fans of Ellis Peters’ Cadfael can tell you how important his skills as an herbalist are. He’s a 12th Century Benedictine monk who lives in the Abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in Shrewsbury. A former soldier, he’s seen his fair share of life, and has traded it in, as they say, for the cowl. His specialty is herbs and other medicines, and he’s in charge of the abbey’s infirmary. In his line of work, he’s come to know a great deal about many different sorts of plants, and what they do. He uses them for healing, and he’s familiar with the effects of those that are poisonous. That background helps him in many of the mysteries he encounters.

Much of Elizabeth George’s Missing Joseph takes place in the small town of Winslough. Deborah and Simon St. James plan a trip there after Deborah meets the town’s vicar, Robin Sage, and is deeply impressed with him. By the time the couple get to the town, though, it’s too late. Sage has been killed. It seems that local herbalist Juliet Spence had invited Sage for a meal, and prepared a salad with water hemlock that she thought was wild parsnip. Since the food that she gave Sage was the last thing he was known to eat or drink, Spence is the most likely suspect. Simon St. James isn’t so sure it’s that simple, though, and asks his friend, Inspector Thomas Lynley, to investigate. One of the interesting things about this novel is the way that Juliet Spence is perceived because she is an herbalist. Not everyone is enthused about her interest…

Herbal and other natural approaches to healing and health are an important part of many African cultures. And plenty of people swear by the power of such medicines. For example, Kwei Quartey’s Darko Dawson series takes place in contemporary Ghana. Especially in urban areas such as Accra, people are familiar with, and make use of hospitals, modern antibiotics, and so on. But even those people also visit herbalists and makers of traditional remedies. In fact, Dawson’s own mother-in-law is a believer in herbalism, and takes her grandson (and Dawson’s son) to a traditional healer for a heart problem he has. And, as we learn in Wife of the Gods, this doesn’t exactly please Dawson, who is hoping to be able to afford the operation the boy needs. It’s an interesting look at the different perspectives on herbalism.

S.J.Rozan’s Lydia Chin is a Chinese-American PI who works in New York City’s Chinatown. On the one hand, she’s a 21st Century American, who lives a contemporary life. On the other, her family is traditionally Chinese, and her mother would like nothing better than for her to settle down, find a ‘proper’ Chinese husband and get married. That’s not the life that Chin wants, though. Still, she does respect her mother, and there are times when the traditional Chinese approach to healing is quite helpful. For instance, in China Trade, the first in this series, Chin is investigating a theft from a local art gallery. She knows that Mr. Gao, who owns the local apothecary, is ‘tuned in’ to all of the local gossip and knows everyone. His shop is popular, and he knows all of the traditional remedies, so he’s also quite well respected. And Chin finds that he’s a useful source of information. At one point in the novel, she’s injured (not life-threatening), and Mr. Gao sends over some herbal medicines. They work very well, and it’s an interesting look at how herbalists do their jobs.

And then there’s Miriam Kaplan, who goes by the name Meroe. She’s one of the regular characters in Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series. Meroe is Wiccan, and also has a thorough knowledge of herbs and natural remedies. She has a way, too, of responding calmly in an emergency, and that, too, is helpful when someone is ill. In more than one of the Corinna Chapman mysteries, Meroe shows her knowledge of herbs, and it proves very helpful.

Herbs and herbalists have been around for a very long time, and their expertise is valuable. There’s certainly an important place for modern antibiotics, surgery, and so on. But many people also believe in the healing power of herbs.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s Spirit Voices.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Elizabeth George, Ellis Peters, Kerry Greenwood, Kwei Quartey, S.J. Rozan

Hey, Better Send Some People Down*

Even the best-equipped police forces don’t always have the staff or the resources they need, especially when there’s a particularly difficult investigation going on. And many police forces serve areas where there’s little major crime. So, they don’t invest a great deal in special equipment, extra people, and so on. That’s not usually considered a wise use of taxpayer money.

What this means is that sometimes, police departments have to ‘borrow’ people from other police departments. Being seconded can give a detective solid experience, and it’s a way to get the job done with limited resources. Sometimes it goes smoothly; sometimes it doesn’t. Either way, a secondment can add an interesting layer to a crime novel, and an equally-interesting look at the way police departments work.

For example, in Louise Penny’s A Fatal Grace (AKA Dead Cold), lifestyle guru Cecilia ‘CC’ de Poitiers decides to move to the small Québec town of Three Pines. She settles in with her husband and fifteen-year-old daughter, and it’s not long before she succeeds in alienating just about everyone. She’s mentally sadistic, malicious, and thoroughly self-involved, so it’s not surprising that she isn’t exactly the most popular person in town. Then, during a Boxing Day curling match, CC is murdered. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec and his team investigate the murder. For duty officer Robert Lemieux, this case gives him the opportunity to work with the legendary Gamache, as he’s the one who reported the crime. Gamache welcomes Lemieux to the team, and does his best to take the fledgling detective under his proverbial wing. It turns out to be a very sad case, but it gives Lemieux valuable experience. And fans of this series will know that he plays an important role in The Cruelest Month, too.

James Lee Burke’s The Tin Roof Blowdown takes place mostly in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The city’s been devastated by the disaster, and the police force is stretched to its limits. So, many of Louisiana’s other police forces are tapped for extra support, including the New Iberia Police. And that means that police detective Dave Robicheaux is sent to New Orleans to help. He discovers that an old friend, Father Jude LeBlanc, has gone missing. LeBlanc had set off in a boat to try to save some of his parishioners, but hasn’t been seen. What’s worse, the boat he used has turned up in the possession of some looters. Robicheaux is sure that there’s a connection between LeBlanc’s disappearance and the looters; to him, this isn’t a case of people happening on an empty boat. But, with much of the city reeling from the hurricane, and with few resources, it’s not going to be an easy connection to make.

Inger Ash Wolfe’s (AKA Michael Redhill) DI Hazel Micallef lives and works in Port Dundas, Ontario. It’s not a very big place, and there’s generally not a lot of crime there. So, she doesn’t have a very big police department. That proves to be a major problem in The Calling, when a series of murders takes place in the area. A small team like Micallef’s isn’t enough to handle the multiple investigations, so she requests extra staff. At first, her boss, Commander Ian Mason, doesn’t see the need for any secondments; he’s not even sure there’s a serial killer involved. But Micallef knows that she and her small team aren’t going to be able to solve these crimes without help. She finally convinces Mason to approve some staff, and that’s at least a start. One of the interesting sub-plots in this novel is the politics behind secondments, and the way that ‘borrowed’ officers and the ‘regular’ team have to work together.

Kwei Quartey’s Wife of the Gods sees Accra DI Darko Dawson seconded to the small town of Ketanu when the body of Gladys Menah is discovered in a nearby wood. The victim was a volunteer with the Ministry of Health, so the Minister of Health takes a special interest in this case; hence the secondment. Dawson’s the logical choice, because he speaks Ewe, the local language, and because he’s a skilled detective. That doesn’t cut much ice with Inspector Fiti of the local police, though. He resents what he sees as Accra’s meddling, and he doesn’t care much for the insinuation that he and his men can’t handle the case. Dawson does his best, at least at first, to reassure Fiti that he has no desire to meddle or take the investigation out of their hands. It doesn’t work, though, and there’s a great deal of conflict and friction between the two. This leads to its own sub-plot, which adds a layer of interest to this novel.

And then there’s Peter May’s The Blackhouse, the first of his Lewis trilogy. Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ Macleod is an Edinburgh police inspector who’s working on a murder case when another, very similar, murder takes place on the Isle of Lewis. It’s very possible that the same person committed both crimes, so Macleod is seconded to help with the Isle of Lewis investigation. It’s hoped that if it’s the same murderer, he and the Isle of Lewis police will be able to help each other. For Macleod, this is a homecoming, since he was brought up there, but it’s not a happy one. He had very good reasons for leaving, and hasn’t had any desire to return. Still, he does his job and goes. This investigation will force him to confront his own past, and deal with several unresolved issues.

Jill Paterson’s Once Upon a Lie introduces readers to DCI Alistair Fitzjohn, of Sydney’s Day Street Station. He’s been in the UK taking some leave time, but returns to Sydney when the body of businessman Michael Rossi is found at a marina on Rushcutter’s Bay. Normally, the Kings Cross Police Station would handle this case, but they’re short-staffed at the moment. So, Fitzjohn is seconded to Kings Cross to help out. Fitzjohn insists that his second-in-command, Martin Betts, go with him. Betts isn’t overly eager, but he agrees, and the two take up their temporary assignment. It turns out that there are several possibilities, both personal and professional, when it comes to motive and suspect, so this case isn’t going to be easy. It doesn’t help matters, either, that Fitzjohn learns that a ‘mole’ may have been placed at Kings Cross to report back to his superior. In the end, though, Fitzjohn, Betts, and the Kings Cross team find out who killed Rossi and why.

Secondments can be awkward for everyone. Sometimes they even end up in friction or outright conflict. But they can also add to a crime novel. These are only a few of many examples. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s Everybody’s Out of Town.

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Filed under Inger Ash Wolfe, James Lee Burke, Jill Paterson, Kwei Quartey, Louise Penny, Michael Redhill, Peter May

In The Spotlight: Kwei Quartey’s Wife of the Gods

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. There are certain police procedures that are followed in just about every country (e.g. looking for physical evidence, talking to family members of victims, tracing financial information). But each country and culture is a little different. And, in each country, the police procedure reflects those differences. Let’s take a look at how that plays out today, and turn the spotlight on Kwei Quartey’s Wife of the Gods, the first of his DI Darko Dawson novels.

One day, in the small Ghanaian town of Ketanu, a woman named Effa discovers the body of Gladys Mensah in a nearby wood. As it happens, Gladys’ brother Charles has just reported her missing, so Inspector Fiti of the local police was already aware that there was concern about her. When her body is discovered, the investigation begins.

The victim was a medical student who volunteered with Ghana’s Ministry of Health. So, the Minister of Health takes an interest in the case, and wants Ghana’s best to investigate the murder. That means sending someone from Accra CID to the site, and that someone ends up being DI Darko Dawson. He’s a skilled detective, but it also matters greatly that he speaks Ewe, the language of the Kitanu region of Ghana. So Darko takes leave of his wife, Christine, and son, Hosiah, and makes the trip.

For Dawon, the trip offers the opportunity to re-connect with his Auntie Osewa and Uncle Kweku, and their son, Alifoe, who live in Kitanu. He hasn’t seen them in many years, and he’s looking forward to doing so now. He doesn’t get much of a chance for a relaxing visit.

This particular murder promises to be complicated. For one thing, Gladys alienated the chief and High Priest of the village, Togbe Adzima, who’s seen as an intermediary between the physical world and the spirit world. With him live three trokosi, wives of the gods, who serve at the shrine, and bear the gods’ children through Adzima, so as to bring fortune to their families. Gladys saw this is a form of enslavement, and was trying to find a safe place for the trokosi to go, so they could leave the shrine. More about this custom shortly. For now, suffice it to say that Gladys’ views on this, and on sexual health and AIDS/HIV prevention, did not endear her to Adzima.

But there are other possibilities, too. More than one man was interested in Gladys. If she rejected one of them, and he resented it enough, anything could happen. And then there’s the fact that Gladys was trying to make condoms, AIDS/HIV prevention information, and other important health resources available to people in the village. Some people see that as immoral. And those activities might have angered someone enough to do something about it.

It takes a slow untangling of the various relationships in the area, and Dawson has to learn the histories some people had with Gladys. But in the end, he discovers who killed the victim. And, he uncovers truths about himself.

The novel takes place in modern Ghana (it was published in 2009). So, readers get to see how traditional beliefs and customs mix with modern science and medicine in that country. For instance, many people believe in witchcraft, or at least respect the possibility that it exists. And yet, they also go to clinics for antibiotics. Traditional healers and ancient remedies are used, but people also go to hospitals for operations. This duality is reflected in young Hosiah, who has a heart murmur. His parents are saving money for an operation, but his grandmother wants him to go to a traditional healer. It makes for a real debate, and Quartey presents both views.

Another way we see the mix of old and new is in the custom of the trokosi. Those opposed to it see it as a form of slavery. Those who follow the custom, or at least approve of it, say that the girls go to the shrine to help their families, and that slavery is not involved. Again, both sides of this debate are depicted in the novel. And I can say without spoiling the story that readers who are tired of cowed, helpless females, or the ‘woman as victim’ will appreciate that that doesn’t really happen here. There’s more empowerment than it may seem.

The Ghana setting is depicted clearly in other ways, too. Food, customs, sense of time, daily life, are all very distinctively Ghana. There is a little use of Ewe and a few other local languages as well. At least for me, it was a very straightforward matter to work out what the words mean from context, and there’s a glossary at the end to help. There’s also, by the way, a bit of explanation of a few cultural things that readers might not know.

This is a police procedural, so readers see how the local police are connected to other police, and to Accra. It’s not like cities such as Berlin, London or Melbourne, where there’s a strong police infrastructure. Different places have to cooperate, share resources, and so on. And the evidence has to be sent out to process. Still, the police (with the exception of a few characters – no spoilers) are skilled professionals who want to do their jobs the best they can. There is a bit of resentment at Darko’s presence (‘Why does Accra have to get involved? We can handle our own cases!’), but by and large, he’s accepted.

That is, until he runs afoul of some of the locals. Adzima, for instance, dislikes Darko from the start. And the feeling is mutual. That’s a strike against him right away. And it doesn’t help matters that Darko makes mistakes, as we all so. In fact, a few times he follows the wrong trail, and it gets him into big trouble. So does the fact that he doesn’t always control his temper as well as he should. That said, he’s not the all-too-common ‘maverick with demons who can’t work with anyone and can’t learn.’ And he faces consequences when he goes too far – consequences he understands and accepts, if not exactly likes.

It’s also worth noting here that Darko has a loving relationship with his wife, his son, and his brother Cairo. In that sense, he’s got a stable home life. He’s haunted by the loss of his mother twenty-five years earlier, and by other family-history matters, but he doesn’t wallow in that.

Wife of the Gods is the story of a small town in Ghana on the border between modern science and medicine and Western ways, and traditional life and ancient ways. It addresses several pressing issues, such as AIDS/HIV, and the choices young women have and do not have. And it features a detective who cares deeply about the job he does, and is determined to make things right, if I can put it that way. But what’s your view? Have you read Wife of the Gods? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight
 

Monday, 1 May/Tuesday, 2 May – Can Anybody Help Me? – Sinéad Crowley

Monday, 8 May/Tuesday, 9 May – Lonesome Point – Ian Vasquez

Monday, 15 May/Tuesday, 16 May – Sisters of Mercy – Caroline Overington

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Filed under Kwei Quartey, Wife of the Gods

I Can’t Explain All These Sounds That I Hear*

If you’re owned by a dog, then you’ve no doubt seen that dogs will prick their ears up and attend to the faintest of sounds. Dogs get a lot of information from what they hear, actually. My canine overlords, for instance, can easily tell the difference between the sounds of a delivery van (cue: a barking fit) and a waste-disposal van (not a reason for barking). Those who are owned by cats can probably tell similar stories about the ability of their overlords to detect sound.

As humans, our hearing isn’t as sensitive as is other animals’ hearing. But what we hear can still have a real impact. Studies show, for instance, that newborn babies can distinguish between their mothers’ voices and other, similarly-pitched, female voices.

It’s not always easy to write about what we hear, but those sensory details can add a lot to a story. And in a crime novel, details of sound can provide interesting clues or misdirection, to say nothing of added atmosphere.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Speckled Band, for instance, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from a new client, Helen Stoner, who has an eerie story to tell. It seems that she and her sister Julia lived at an estate called Stoke Moran. Julia had begun hearing a strange series of noises during the night, and couldn’t make much sense of them. Then, one night, she suddenly died after some cryptic final words. Now, Helen’s been hearing the same weird noises that Julia heard. She doesn’t know what they are, either, but she’s afraid that she’s about to be the next victim. She wants Holmes to find out what’s going on, and he agrees. And he soon discovers that Helen was very wise to be concerned. As it turns out, those strange noises she and Julia heard are very important clues to the mystery.

Agatha Christie used sounds as both clues and ‘red herrings.’ In Death on the Nile, for instance, a new bride, Linnet Doyle, is shot on the second night of her honeymoon cruise of the Nile. The evidence points at first to her former best friend, Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort, who’s on the same cruise. After all, Linnet ended up marrying Jackie’s former fiancé. But it’s soon shown that Jackie could not have committed the crime. Hercule Poirot is on the same cruise, and he works to find out who really killed the victim. Along the way, he learns of several sounds people heard at the time in question. Some are related to the crime; some aren’t. All add to the story. I see you, fans of Murder on the Orient Express

Keigo Higashino’s The Devotion of Suspect X introduces readers to Tokyo physicist/mathematician Dr. Manabu ‘Galileo’ Yukawa. In the novel, police detective Shunpei Kusanagi investigates the murder of Shinji Togashi. Kusanagi suspects the victim’s ex-wife, Yasuko Hanaoka, of the crime. But he can’t find any convincing evidence against her. So, he brings in Galileo to consult on the case. It turns out that he’s up against a formidable opponent, though, in Tetsuya Ishigami, a mathematics teacher who lives in the same building as Yasuko Hanaoka. Ishigami has fallen in love with her and would do anything to protect her. As it turns out, sound plays an important role in this story. What is heard, not heard, and so on, all figure in.

Kwei Quartey’s Wife of the Gods introduces readers to Accra-based DI Darko Dawkins. In the novel, he is seconded to the small town of Ketanu, when the body of Gladys Mensah is discovered there. She was a promising medical student, with hopes of making a real difference in her community. At first, it’s hard to say how exactly she died, and there is talk of witchcraft. But it’s soon discovered that she was strangled. Dawkins is already at a bit of a disadvantage, since he’s not from the area (although his aunt and uncle live there). But he gets to know the various people in Gladys’ life. Bit by bit, Darko works out who might have had a motive for murder, and there’s more than one possibility. One of the things that helps him is that he has a very nuanced sense of hearing. He notices very subtle changes in voices, that indicate when someone is upset, or lying, or at the very least hiding something. He’s sensitive to other sounds, too, and they give him clues along the way as to what the truth is.

And then there’s Brian McGilloway’s The Nameless Dead. In one plot thread of this case, Garda Ben Devlin is asked to investigate a very strange phenomenon. Christine Cashell has reported hearing a baby cry on her baby monitor. But she and her partner have no children. They had wanted a family, but their son was stillborn, and they haven’t yet got rid of the baby things they’d bought (hence, the monitor). Christine swears that she’s not ‘hearing things,’ but if she’s not, then how can a monitor transmit infant cries if there’s no baby? Cashell is emotionally very fragile, but Devlin doesn’t think she’s either hallucinating or lying. So, he looks into the matter further. What he finds helps him in another case he’s investigating, and shows just how important sound can be.

And it really can. Not only does the effective use of sounds help an author to ‘show not tell,’ but it also allows for clues, misdirection, atmosphere, and lots more. Wait – just a second – was that footsteps I just heard?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bill Sheffield’s Hearing Things.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Brian McGilloway, Keigo Higashino, Kwei Quartey