As everyone knows, there are a very famous series of books set in Botswana—by Alexander McCall Smith. McCall Smith’s delicate prose is matched by the charm of his main character, Precious Ramotswe. Now there is a new series set in Botswana, with a slightly darker take, though the main character, Detective Kubu, would surely be friendly with Precious were they to meet. Detective Kubu (the Botswana word for “Hippo”) is hugely fat and hugely smart. If Precious is the African Miss Marple, then Kubu is the African Nero Wolfe. Kubu and Wolfe both share a deep appreciation for the pleasures of the table, and both of them have brains that work best with their eyes closed.
“It was a mistake to think that detection was a matter of figuring out what had happened in the past and then taking revenge for it. He understood now that it was about protecting the future from the people that committed evil and who would do so again.”
When enough customers ask you about a certain author in a short period of time, it makes you take notice. When several of my more discerning “guy” readers mentioned Matt Rees as a wonderful writer, I was intrigued enough to pick up the first book. Rees was a longtime bureau chief for Time in Jerusalem, and his familiarity with the area certainly shows. The book is set in Bethlehem, with characters that are a mix of all the peoples that crowd into this tiny area—Jews, Christians, Muslims, Palestinians. The central character, Omar Yussef, teaches at a UN Refugee school. He is a Muslim originally from Palestine, and his view of the world is out of sync with many of those around him.
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.
This is a wonderful first novel, fitting in well with work by other newer writers like Tana French and Sophie Hannah. Like the work by those two ladies, it’s layered, complex, and beautifully written. Set in South Africa in the 50’s as the strict rules of apartheid were being enforced by draconian measures, the similarities between the Nazis and the Afrikaners can’t be overlooked. Nunn even supplies a Jewish refugee in the tiny village of Jacob’s Rest to make her point. Detective Emmanuel Cooper is called in from Johannesburg to take over the case of a murdered white police officer, but before he makes much headway the Security Branch is called in, and he’s put on a tangential investigation.
I’m not sure what all goes on in the mind of Michael Gruber, but I’m delighted he’s decided to share some of his thoughts with us. Any book of his I’ve ever read has been totally thought provoking and sometimes an almost mystical experience. That sounds corny, but it’s true—he’s a profound thinker disguised as a mystery writer. This outing deals with the differences between the cultures of the United States and the cultures of various Muslim nations, but most notably Pakistan. There’s hardly a topic more timely, of course, and Gruber will make you examine any preconceived ideas you might possibly have about Muslims, and maybe even get you to question some of your own about our own culture. That sounds tedious, though, doesn’t it? Gruber is far from a tedious writer, however, and this book is no exception.
This is a very pleasant novel set in Trafalgar, British Columbia, featuring Constable Molly Smith. It’s a police procedural at its heart, though it’s also a nice, layered look at Molly’s life, taking in all aspects – her romantic life, her relationship with her parents, and her relationship with her brother. Her parents run a small shop in town, and one of the opening scenes finds Molly’s dad collapsing at work. Molly thus spends her time split between a breaking case, worrying about an apparent stalker, and hospital visits to see her father, which also serve to round her out as a character. One of my favorite details was that her parents, apparently former hippies, actually named their children “Samwise” and “Moonlight.” Of course neither of them use their given names, and it’s sometimes confusing when Molly is called “Moon” by her mother, but it’s a funny, sweet detail.
To say that a book that contains the kind of material this one does is “delicate” may be a stretch—but it somehow fits. Using a template that might be familiar to the legions of readers of Georges Simenon’s beloved Maigret stories, Camilleri sets his “honest man” smack in the middle of Sicily. Unfortunately, of course, for honesty. Sicily, according to this novel, may be one of the more corrupt places on the planet, with national and local police forces co-existing but not really working together, and of course the whole is complicated by the mafia.
Cara Black’s series character, Aimee LeDuc, may be one of the coolest in mystery fiction, not a genre known for its high “cool” quotient. I’d equate her to characters like Cornelia Read’s Madeleine Dare, Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan, and especially Sujata Massey’s way cool Rei Shimura. Aimee is a P.I. in Paris who wears lots of black, leather pants, and red hightops, and gets around town on a pink scooter. Her business partner, the dapper midget Rene, is a nice foil. Each novel in this now long lived series is set in a different Paris neighborhood; this one takes place in the upscale Passy.
Lackberg is getting the big push in the wake of hugely popular fellow Swedes like Henning Mankell and Steig Larsson, and apparently she’s wildly popular in her native Sweden. Like Mankell, her work owes a debt to some of the great British writers of contemporary crime fiction – Ruth Rendell and P.D. James spring to mind – but she doesn’t quite have their tight pacing skills. While I enjoyed this novel very much I was conscious as I read it that I was reading it in translation, and I was often wanting her to hurry things up a bit, though I wouldn’t really call her story telling style languid. She’s capable of some stunning bits of psychological insight, however, thus the comparison to James and Rendell.
I was knocked out by Quartey’s debut, Wife of the Gods, and I’m happy to report that this second novel is just as excellent. Quartey’s series character, Darko Dawson, is really a classic who seems as though he’s been solving mysteries “between the covers” for decades, not just two novels. He’s such a completely realized and compelling character that he’s a wonderful lynchpin for the books, though there is more to them even than Darko himself. Darko works for the CID in Ghana in the capitol city of Accra, where he lives with his wife and his son Hosiah, who suffers from a heart defect. There is surgery to cure it, but the Dawsons cannot afford it. Darko’s worry for his son is an underlying thread of anxiety that Quartey skillfully pulls through the novel.