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.