Archive for International – Page 3

Michael Stanley: The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu

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.

The settings in the book are so gorgeously rendered you can almost see and hear them, and obviously the writers have a deep love for their subject. The mystery is in the classic vein: the scene opens at a tourist camp where two of the guests have been murdered and one of them has disappeared. Detective Kubu is put in charge of the case, which turns out to be remarkably complex and involves the horrors of the Rhodesian Civil War (there’s a note about it in the book in case you need to brush up). This is a very rich novel—rich setting, rich characters, and many of them, with a complicated story that is told in a kind of laid back way. The author has his own rhythm, but if you give yourself time to adjust to it (as with a Tony Hillerman novel, for example) the pleasures are many.

Making this book even more delightful are the snippets of Kubu’s home life with his wife, Joy. (Every woman in the book has a wonderful name like “Joy” or “Pleasant” or “Beauty”.) I think the inclusion of Kubu’s strong marriage and his weekly visits to his parents flesh out more than anything what life might be like for a normal African living in a city. While Kubu relishes his time in the bush investigating the crimes at the Jackalberry camp, he also longs for home, where a good meal and a good bottle of wine are always available.

The crimes at the camp are almost Agatha Christie-like as each member of the camp, visitor or owner, turns out to have a tie or a motive to the crimes. Even more puzzling is the character of the deceased, Goodluck Tinubu himself, who appears to be a good hearted teacher, yet all signs point to him being a drug runner. None of the easy assumptions make sense to Kubu, who is, after all, a gifted detective in the classic mode. His determination is paired with his desire to finish a case that ends up endangering his beloved Joy, and makes him, like a charging hippo, hard to stop once he gets going. Clues are many and various and while the astute reader may pick up on some of them, plenty of them aren’t so obvious.

Detective Kubu is a gift to mystery readers—he’s an instant classic. These books are a shade darker than McCall Smith’s, including rape, drugs, and several brutal murders, but the surroundings are just as comfortable. Somehow, only two outings in, I feel certain that Kubu will get to the bottom of everything.

Matt Beynon Rees: The Collaborator of Bethlehem

“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.

He remembers with fondness a time when differences were more tolerated; the violence and suicide bombings that surround him now fill him with anger. He’s 56, an age where he teeters on retirement, and he knows his way of seeing the world—through a veil of politeness and civility—is long past, but he feels that if he can just get his message through to a few of his students his time on earth will not have been wasted.

This is a large, rich, complex chunk to bite off and work with, and the wonder is is that not only was Rees apparently a gifted journalist, he is also a gifted novelist, with a real ability to breathe life and emotion into the characters he writes about. After reading this book it’s almost upsetting to me that Omar Yussef is not actually a real person. More than that, the way he sets up the story is the work of a full blown pro. Yussef meets one of his students, George Saba, for coffee. George has recently brought his family back to Bethelehem from Chile, and he is not sure it was the right decision, even though his children can now live with, and know, their grandfather. George is also one of the students that Yussef feels was a success—his kindness and decency, he hopes, came about partly because of his teaching.

The second part of the set up is the next scene, where George and his family are crouched in their apartment, hoping to avoid the sniper fire that is whizzing around them. The bullets are imbedding themselves in the walls of his apartment—over the heads of his children—and he is angry. He goes up on the roof with an antique gun (so rusted it can’t be loaded or fired) and threatens the gunmen with it, telling them to leave. Right then I was invested completely in the story, but then Rees takes it one better: next day comes the news that George has been arrested as a collaborator. Yussef is stricken—he knows his friend is innocent—but in Bethlehem innocence and guilt mean very little, something he already knows, but which is hammered home to him throughout his quest to save George from inevitable execution.

Yussef, who is able to accept and adapt to many of the vagaries of life in such a violent corner of the world, is continually frustrated in his quest to free George. His old friend Khamis Zeydan, now the frequently drunk police chief of Bethlehem, seems like he might be involved, and Yussef questions even this old friendship. The “collaborator” of the title is not only the innocent George Saba, but almost every one else who lives in and around Israel and the West Bank.

Rees is able—like the very best of novelists—to convey absolute horror without sentimentality. Some of the things that happen in this book will probably haunt you, but they also seem like something that can and does happen. The real bit of grace in the book is the way Yussef chooses to deal with what happens. He shows that even a somewhat frail 56 year old can find a reason to move ahead in the world. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Kwei Quartey: Wife of the Gods

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.

Malla Nunn: A Beautiful Place to Die

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.

Nunn is expert at peeling apart the racial layers of African society in 1952, starting at the “top” with the Dutch Afrikaner family of the murdered officer, Captain Pretorius. On the surface his bland, blonde family of sons, with the exception of the youngest, Louis, appear to be vicious bullies, intent on using their family’s power to control the town. Cooper is paired in his investigation with a native Zulu officer, Shabalala, who had in fact grown up with the dead captain, something Cooper discovers only midway through the investigation. His first roadblock is the morgue: there isn’t one, and the doctor has been called away, so Cooper goes to the “underground” doctor, a man called by everyone in town the “old Jew”. He of course is a refugee from the holocaust who is running a shop but in his other life was a doctor. He performs the initial examination on the dead captain, setting into a motion a complicated dance whereby he and Detective Cooper eventually learn to trust one another. But it takes awhile.

As the Security Branch officers – also blonde bullies – pursue a “communist” who they feel is guilty (and they obtain a confession from him), Emmanuel and Shabalala are on the track of a peeping tom who became a molester. Because he “peeped” only at black women, the case was given only cursory interest by the police. Meanwhile, Emmanuel’s superior officer back in Johannesburg tells him to find the true guilty party, thus saving his career and his bosses’. Using real detective methods instead of the brutal beatings administered by the Security Branch, he uncovers a web of family lies and connections that are also tied to race. None of what he uncovers makes him any safer, and the end of the novel is a real nail-biter.

Nunn’s resolution owes more to a psychological writer like Ruth Rendell, as it’s family and relationship based, but the twist is the 50’s politics and racial atmosphere of South Africa. The only real caveat I had with the book is that Emmanuel – a somewhat traumatized WWII vet (a la Ian Rutledge in Charles Todd’s fine series) – is so racially open and sensitive. It serves the plot, certainly, but I’m not sure it’s absolutely of the time period. It seemed a bit of an anachronism to me, and that’s one of the trickier things about any historical novel. That said, this is a fine book, beautifully written with complicated and layered characters whose motives are never obvious, but instead obscure and difficult to ascertain. The descriptions of the African countryside are lovely, and A Beautiful Place to Die is heartbreakingly illustrated. This is well worth a read.

Michael Gruber: The Good Son

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.

The two main characters (though they use several names, I’ll use just one variant for clarity here), Sonia and Theo Bailey, are mother and son, with a complicated relationship. Sonia grew up in the circus and her mother was eaten by a lion when she was young—the circus folks train her up as a card sharp and a sleight of hand artist, something that comes into play later in the book. Eaten by lions, you ask? That’s the very kind of narrative detail that Gruber, for some reason, is able to get away with, and I’m not really sure why that’s true. Sonia eventually meets and marries Farid Laghari, a lawyer from a prominent Pakistani family, and she settles with him in his family’s home, where she gives birth to Theo.

Sonia struggles with her role as a traditional Begum, or Pakistani wife, and she eventually runs off and goes on a haj, something only permitted to Muslim men. She disguises herself as one and writes about it, earning the eternal dislike of her husband’s family. Because of this there’s a fatwa out on her and when she calls Theo at the beginning of the story to tell him she’s going back to Pakistan after an absence of many years, he is understandably worried.

For various reasons I won’t go into here, as I don’t want to give away too many plot details, Theo ends up growing up as a wild muslim soldier boy on eternal jihad. When his mother finally catches up with him and brings him to America, he eventually joins the Army, where he becomes deep cover special forces. That is the set up of a thriller, but when it’s combined with the fact that Sonia and her party (a conference of international scholars meeting to talk about peace in the Middle East) are taken hostage, the suspense is really amped up.

Gruber is a very detailed writer. Some of the things he includes in his stories are so unique that almost any tangent he takes you on is an interesting one, and they always tie back into the story. While the complex narrative threads are eventually sorted at the end of the book, the real meat of the story is Gruber’s look at the two very different cultures. He will definitely make you think about the U.S. approach to any foreign nation, and he helps you to understand some of the beauty of the essential Muslim culture. I thought the ending was a teeny bit too coincidental, but as I was reading it, I accepted it. And I’m glad I took the journey. More than almost any other writer, Gruber leaves you thinking as you finish the book, and I feel certain that’s his plan. It’s an excellent one.

Vicky Delany: Negative Image

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.

The major case in the story concerns a formerly famous photographer found dead in his hotel room, and the main suspect – or “person of interest” – appears to be the wife of one of the policemen, John Winters. Delany pokes apart their marriage with a deft hand; while you can understand to some extent the way Winters reacts, at the same time you feel frustrated with his behavior. In my opinion, that’s the work of a writer who can really create an indelible character.

There’s also a backstory involving a series of robberies – a case Winters is delegated to, as his wife is a suspect in the murder – as well as a story involving someone who is stalking Molly. Because she is unwilling to appear weak as a female officer, she doesn’t confide what’s going on to any of her superior officers until late in the story.

Meanwhile, she’s visiting her parents in the hospital, watching her mother age before her eyes as her father, very weak, does not improve. Molly is pleasantly surprised by the support her boyfriend offers her; because of a dead lover, she feels some guilt, but he’s there when she needs him and she seems to reach a decision about their relationship by the end of the book.

Molly seems hemmed in by policing in a small town – she knows everyone, and everyone knows her – but she’s stuck figuring out how to advance her career, stay near her boyfriend, and support her parents. In this way this novel is also very much like real life.

Molly is a very appealing central character who is smart enough to figure out what’s going on, but not so smart that she seems unapproachable. Every step she takes is mostly gained through solid police work; her mistakes, when she makes them, are sometimes a product of her immaturity or inexperience. All in all, this is a nice addition to the small town police novel.

Andrea Camilleri: The Shape of Water

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.

Inspector Montalbano, Camilleri’s main character, is as likeable, smart and funny as his predecessor Maigret. (Unfortunately there is no Madame Montalbano, but Montalbano has a useful cleaning lady who cooks for him, despite the fact that he put her son in prison). The opening scene is somewhat confusing, as it’s so absolutely different from the way things work here, but when a murder is added to the mix the reader enters more familiar territory.

The body of an important politician, one Lupanello, is found dead in his car in the “pasture”, local gathering spot for prostitutes and their clients. Several witnesses reported seeing him having sex with someone, and indeed he’s found with his pants around his ankles, dead of apparently natural causes. Something about it bothers Montalbano, though, and he refuses to close the case despite pressure from all sides except, surprisingly, from the dead man’s wife.

Towards the end of the novel Montalbano has dinner at a friend’s house and after dinner they discuss, among other things, a novel titled Candido. In this novel, as his friend reminds him, sometimes things really are simple. Montalbano reminds his friend that Candido actually says things are “almost always” simple. As this book is the story of a seemingly simple crime, the resolution is a complicated one, yet Camilleri never makes it look difficult. He makes it look simple.

Along the way, as Montalbano goes about the business of solving the case, his various actions proving him to be by turns funny, honest, compassionate, and not afraid to bend the truth for the right reason. His girlfriend’s opinion of his bending the truth isn’t so complimentary, but in reading the story, Montalbano’s behavior makes perfect sense and seems like the right path. The simple bending of the truth, however, proves in the end to also be complicated. Montalbano is a wonderful character, as is this delightful, unforgettable book, written with delicacy and conciseness.

Cara Black: Murder in Passy

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.

The books are set slightly in the past to capture some of the turmoil happening in Paris in the late 90’s; this one focuses on Basque terrorists. Black’s starting point is the rehearsal dinner for her old friend Morbier’s lady friend Xavierre’s daughter. Morbier, a policeman, is caught up in another high profile case and can’t attend, but he sensed some fear in Xavierre’s voice that he wants to see if Aimee can get a handle on.

Though Aimee attends the party (in vintage Chanel, no less), Xavierre laughs off Morbier’s fears. Aimee is still vaguely troubled, but she can’t really put a finger on anything. However the brutal discovery in the alley behind the house of Xavierre’s body proves Morbier’s fears correct; he, however is quickly identified as the prime suspect and hauled to jail. Aimee is on the case to help this old friend of her father’s, and as things often do in a Black novel, they explode.

Weaving her way through the labyrinthine streets of Paris, Aimee begins to peel back layers of the Basque separatist movement, focusing on the extremists. The atmosphere of the city is almost palpable, and that’s one of the real charms of these books. While I’ve never been to Paris, I almost feel that I have and reading the books almost makes you feel you can smell the gateau and espresso. That said, these novels are far from fluffy.

The plot is complex and eventually involves the kidnaping of a minor royal along with an explosion and a few other casualties. The pace never lets up, so if you need to take a breath, too bad for you – Black and Aimee have already sprinted ahead. The ending is appropriately moving, though Black is not a sentimental writer. She has, however, created characters so indelible that you not only won’t forget them, you’ll be moved by them.

Camilla Lackberg: The Ice Princess

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.

The story itself has a terrific premise. Erica Falck, returned to her childhood home of Fjallbacka to clean out her parent’s home after their deaths, happens to be the person who finds the dead body of her childhood friend, Alex. Coincidental, yes, but Lackberg manages to make Erica’s encounter with Alex’s body seem completely believable. Alex’s frosted body in the tub, wrists slit, is a haunting and creepy image that carries through the entire novel. It’s never far from your reader’s mind, and to keep it fresh, the author intersperses vignettes told from the killer’s? – Alex’s lover’s? – point of view that describe the dead body (and the living one) in some detail. And of course while it appears at first glance that Alex’s death is a suicide, what mystery novel actually centers on a death by suicide? Alex’s death is of course a murder.

Erica is a writer, specializing in biographies of women writers, and she’s working on one as she cleans out her parent’s house. However, Alex’s story so captivates her that she begins to write about it, thus drawing herself into the investigation, as does her budding relationship with the policeman in charge of the case. Her history with Alex is also problematic and shades the story – they had been girlhood friends, then drifted apart for no reason Erica could ever fathom. As Erica works away at this puzzle, she gets closer and closer to the heart of the mystery.

Sidebars include a look at Erica’s sister’s troubled marriage; her relationship with the policeman; the new boss at the police station, who nobody likes; and the odd and unexplainable relationship Alex apparently had in secret with a local painter who was better known as a town drunk. Lackberg’s explication of all these various ties and relationships is sensitive and detailed, but I wished sometimes that we weren’t along for the cup of coffee or piece of pastry as she goes about her business. It slows down the action. On the other hand, a nice passage like this one makes it all worthwhile:

All the emotion in the room made the air feel supersaturated, but at the same time it felt as if they were doing some spring cleaning of the soul. There was so much that had gone unspoken, so much dust in the corners, and they both could feel that it was time to take out the dust mop.

“Spring cleaning of the soul” is such a lovely phrase and idea that I was willing to put up with some of the side trips Lackberg takes in telling her story, which ends up being a compelling and well thought out one. I’d be willing to revisit Erica and Fjallbacka.

Kwei Quartey: Children of the Street

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.

The core of the novel concerns the street children of Accra – there are (according to Quartey, and I have no reason to doubt him) – 60,000 children living on the streets of Accra. When they start turning up dead, the cases, by the second or third body appear to be linked, though Darko’s boss allows his nephew, who works under Dawson, to head on a wild goose chase as far as the possible culprit is concerned. It’s a good sidebar as it’s a way for the book to highlight the workings of the Ghanian police force, as well as one of Darko’s weaknesses. The story of the street children is heartbreaking, and Quartey spares us no horrible detail as we learn about 13 year old girls forced to work as prostitutes, young boys who stake out a piece of sidewalk to sleep on while taking turns keeping watch, and the difficulty that all of the children have finding any kind of work or something to eat. Though it’s lightly touched on, much of the western world’s electronic garbage turns up in Africa, and one of the things the kids do for money is strip computer wires for the copper inside. Of course burning the outer part of the wire is toxic, and there’s a cloud of black smoke hanging over the garbage dump where they scrounge for electronics.

The plight of the boys only makes the parade of teen-aged corpses more heartbreaking. I admire any writer who can take a tired trope like the serial killer novel and make it absolutely fresh, which is the case here. Quartey is also a pure mystery writer with an obvious love for the genre – he makes use of red herrings, clues and tricky characters that succeed in fooling the reader. I was very surprised by the killer’s identity, even though there was a clue in the narrative. So this is a serial killer book, yes, but it’s not a thriller, it’s a mystery. Darko’s heart carries you through the story and enriches your reading experience. I shed a tear on the last page and you probably will too, and like me, you’ll probably be looking forward to the next book already. More, please, Dr. Quartey!