Saturday, April 10, 2010

Murder Is Everywhere

Our guest blogger this Saturday is Kwei Quartey. His first novel – Wife of the Gods – is a mystery set in Ghana and featuring a complex, three dimensional detective, Darko Dawson. It was immediately received with critical acclaim: the LA Times called it “an absolute gem of a first novel and the sort of book that will delight not only hard core mystery fans, but also those who visit the genre only casually”. It went on to become an LA Times best seller. His second mystery – Children of the Street – will be released by Random House next year, and is keenly awaited.

Kwei was born in Ghana and raised by an African American mother and a Ghanaian father. After his father’s untimely death, and a skirmish with the totalitarian government of the day, the family left Africa and settled in the US. Even though his professional writing career began only after he became a physician, his desire to be a writer started at a very early age.

Kwei now lives in Pasadena, California. He writes early in the morning before setting out to work, where he runs a wound care clinic and is the lead physician at an urgent care center.
There is much more about Kwei and his novels at
He is currently researching his second book in Ghana. Here are some thoughts from him on his experiences there:

I live, work as a physician, and write novels in Los Angeles, that noir fiction city. However my fiction, noir or not, is set in Ghana. While on vacation in France at the turn of the millennium, I saw a documentary about an Ivory Coast homicide detective who used superstition and notions of witchcraft to scare his suspects into confession. I thought I could write a novel with a similar idea, but set it in Ghana. After all, I had lived in that West African country until my late teens, when I moved back to the States with my widowed American mother. That documentary sparked the beginnings of WIFE OF THE GODS (WOTG), the first novel in my Detective Inspector Darko Dawson series.

Writing “remotely” about Ghana while living in the States has its own set of challenges. I can follow news and current affairs easily on the Internet, but still, I’m not in Ghana for the “flavor” of the locales and events. Flavor is what infuses the setting with its own special nuances. In addition, just from a technical standpoint particularly in Ghana where infrastructure is rapidly developing, I may not realize that this or that building has gone up where there was none before, or that a highway has just been opened through an area that was previously field and stream.

Still, research is research. I daresay I would still have to go around probing for information even if my story were set down the street from my house. In a fashion that some might find a little odd, I write my novel before I visit Ghana to research it. This means I know exactly what questions need to be asked and answered. I did this for WOTG, and I’m doing it now for the second novel, CHILDREN OF THE STREET (COTS).

Before I left for Ghana on 27th March 2010, I thought the title “Murder is Everywhere” was kind of catchy and nifty. After arriving in Accra, the capital, where I’m writing this piece, I find the phrase has a lot more significance than just cute. A couple years ago as I was writing WOTG, I had had a concern that I might somehow be ascribing a “culture of murder” to a place where it is more an exception than a rule. That was the peaceful Ghana I had known, or thought I had, as I was growing up. Fortunately, or unfortunately, really, that will not be an issue. Ghana has most certainly changed in modern times, with homicides up and use of locally made firearms on the rise. A chief’s wife was shot dead in Eastern Region two days ago. There have been four homicides from March to April, 2010 in a town called Suhum.

In CHILDREN OF THE STREET, there are a number of killings in the tough environment of urban poor kids who work and in some cases live on the street. The opening scene finds a dead man in the foul, refuse-choked waterway that runs into Korle Lagoon through Agbogbloshie, Accra’s infamous slum full of illegal squatters.
Scene of the crime: a dead man in Agbogbloshie's refuse-choked, toxic waters

I thought the corpse in the lagoon was an original scenario, but just today, as I talked to Mr. Ethelbee Tetteh (what a great name for a novel), the client relations officer at the Korle Lagoon Ecological Restoration Project (KLERP), I asked him what he thought of my fictional setup. His answer made the phrase “truth is stranger than fiction” seem not so hackneyed. Ethelbee told me that he had personally has seen a corpse in the infested waters on not one, but four separate occasions. The police were called each time and the bodies were retrieved in an ingenious manner that I will reveal in COTS.

KLERP's "corkscrew" type pump station.

 Dredger (Bridge-like structure) and excavator in background

In COTS, there is a dangerous world of darkened alleys and wooden makeshift structures. I recruited a guide to take me into the real deal.

You could end up dead in one of Agbogbloshie's shadowy alleys

I also interviewed a young woman from one of these very “hoods” and confirmed that the stabbings, fights with broken bottles, heart-wrenching stories of rape, and finally murder, were as I had depicted them in my first draft of COTS. Of course, I had used research materials from the Internet to paint this picture, but to talk to someone who lives these experiences every day was almost eerie. That effect would have been unlikely if I had researched first and written second.

Finally, my protagonist’s first name, Darko is more lifelike than I had realized. I had made it up by anglicizing the more traditional Ghanaian name Daaku. Yet in the Kaneshie area of Accra, there are four small streets named “Darko Lane” 1 through 4. But that was not the best of the ironies. Last weekend, driving up to a town called Somanya, we came upon a terrible vehicle crash with several severe injuries and two fatalities. After I had administered CPR to some of the victims and they had been dispatched to hospital, in waltzed the dark-suited police. They did not appear to be terribly concerned, but that’s another story. I was talking to one officer and took a glance at his badge. In block letters, it read, DARKO.

To end on a less grim note, there are still lots of images in Ghana to make one smile. This is a little kid I called “Master Red-Boots.” He hangs around one of the local NGO’s for street children.

Master Red-Boots


  1. Thank you, Kwei, for a most fascinating post.
    I'm very much looking forward to reading WOTG.

    And thank you, Michael and Stan, for bringing him here.

  2. Hi Kwei,

    The story sounds fascinating.
    'foul, refused-choked waterway..' I could just see it!

    Best of luck to you.


    Thanks Leighton for bringing Kwei to our attention and thanks Michael & Stan for bringing Kwei to Leighton's.

  3. Well, that's definitely one for my reading list. Intriguing - thanks for coming by and sharing Kwei.

  4. Extreme poverty is a curse that doesn't have borders. Even countries with wealth overlook the poorest of the poor. When people are treated like refuse it is always the children who suffer the most. Master Red-Boots with his extraordinary smile is heart-breaking.

    It seems that Ghana is beginning to emulate the United States' love affair with the gun. Anger that was once resolved with words now ends with murder when a gun is handy. No society benefits when the solution to a dispute is a gun. I am afraid that you are not going to find yourself in the same position Colin Dexter was in when he was writing the Inspector Morse mysteries. He said the Oxford town fathers weren't pleased that he killed off more people than there were residents of their beautiful town. Morse didn't have to deal with guns.

    I love the way you work. When I was in school, papers had to include the outline that was used. I always manufactured my outline after the paper was finished. How could I know what was going to be in it until I wrote it? I think asking the questions after the fact is efficient.

    I look forward to reading WIVES OF THE GODS.

    Ethelbee is a wonderful name for a character in a mystery. Part of the mystery can be figuring out the gender.


  5. Thanks to all the great commentators with their observations so far.

  6. A friend of mine recently returned from two years in Lagos, Nigeria also in West Africa.

    Whilst there he wrote a weekly blog of the things he came across. He always tried to put a light hearted spin on things, but some of the real life stories were truly shocking, and unfortunately life in Nigeria is seen as cheap, and death is now a daily occurrence.

    Kwei, thank you for this contribution -I'll be sure to read your book soon.