There has been a huge outpouring of international mystery fiction lately, much of it excellent. There are several series set in Africa, which a large enough continent that it can ensure a great deal of variety, depending on the country where the book is set. This one is set in Ghana, which is in Northern Africa, kind of the on the heel (between Ivory Coast and Togo). This novel, joining work by Alexander McCall Smith, Michael Stanley, and Deon Meyer, is outstanding. Quartey has some of the same qualities of both McCall-Smith and Michael Stanley: like both men, his reverence for the African countryside is apparent. Like Stanley’s Detective Kubu, his Detective Darko is a well rounded family man whose family life, especially in this novel, plays a key part in the story. His book is much more concisely told than Stanley’s, however, and more narrative driven than McCall-Smith’s. And Detective Darko is an instant classic.
Darko works in one of the larger cities in Ghana, Accra. He’s called in on a case that occurs in rural Africa, which allows Quartey to contrast city life with rural life. The story centers on a small village, run by a fetish priest who has many wives, called trokosi. The girls are brought to the priest at a young age more or less as family atonement, and then they live with him and never see their families again. We meet a few of the trokosi or “Wives of the Gods” as well as the priest himself, who seems most ungodly in his behavior, as he’s selfish and often drunk. As it happens, Darko’s Aunt and Uncle, who he hasn’t seen since he was a boy, live near this village and so he returns to the area with much emotional baggage.
Darko has a few qualities which make him vivid – one is his problem with anger (and when it comes up int the story, you’re pretty much on his side all the way), and an ability to kind of “feel” a voice. He can feel the change in a voice as well which helps him to know when someone is lying. It’s a wonderful detail which Quartey also uses to narrative advantage, and it’s one of the more unusual and distinctive that I’ve encountered in any character in any novel. This made me, as a reader, fully invested in Darko as a character, and it drew me even further into the story.
When Darko encounters his aunt again it’s with some trepidation. The last time he had seen her he had been with his mother and brother, and soon after their visit tragedy strikes his brother, and then his mother disappears after a visit to his aunt. His aunt is delighted and overwhelmed to see him, however, and is able to give him some insights into the people he is meeting and trying to figure out. The case involves a young student who was volunteering to bring AIDS prevention techniques to rural Africa; she is found dead in a remote area. The local detective, Fiti, resents the intrusion of the big city detective, and is quick to settle on a somewhat sullen teenage boy as his culprit, and he slaps him in jail. In the manner of all gifted detectives, Darko is not so sure he’s the right suspect. That may be the only expected thing in this novel, however, and Quartey even subverts this trope by actually making the reader doubt Darko’s instincts.
The complex weaving together of Darko’s family and work life, the flavor of Ghana, and the Ghanaian culture and tradition, all make this novel unique, but it’s also a straight up well told story with a terrific and memorable central character. The denouement is heartbreaking as well as well crafted and surprising. Hopefully this is only the first installment in a long series.