Thursday, July 14, 2011

What would Chandler have written...

Today's guest blog is by Kwei Quartey whose first book Wife of the Gods introduced a memorable new detective - Darko Dawson - in Accra, Ghana. That book met enthusiastic critical acclaim, and everyone (including me) has been waiting impatiently for the next book in the series.  So this blog is wonderfully timed because this week Children of the Street was launched in Kwei’s “other” home town – Los Angeles.  It’s already getting great reviews. Michael Connelly said: “Kwei Quartey does what all the best storytellers do. He takes you to a world you have never seen and makes it as real to you as your own backyard. In Children of the Street he brings a story that is searing and original and done just right. Inspector Darko Dawson is relentless and I look forward to riding with him again.”

            So over to Kwei to see what he thinks Chandler would have written...

            …if he had lived in Accra? He was the master novelist who created the private investigator Philip Marlowe and had a particular style that became influential to the hardboiled genre. You know it when you hear it; spare language that packs a punch with its wittiness and irony. My favorite among many in The Big Sleep: “Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains.”
            Chandler’s Marlowe worked in Los Angeles, which arguably is the noir capital of America, or at least that’s what we Angelinos like to think. But I wonder hypothetically how Chandler would have managed the radically different setting of Accra, Ghana’s capital.  
            In my new novel, Children of the Street (COTS), Inspector Darko Dawson investigates a suspicious death in a section of the blighted, deadly Accra slum called Agbogbloshie. The members of the crime scene unit are “framed apocalyptically against dense black smoke billowing from somewhere upstream.”

            That description might be a little clunky by Chandler standards, and I have no doubt that he would have brought the scene to life more brilliantly and crisply than I did. There’s a descriptive line in The Big Sleep: “…The central walk was lined with Italian cypresses trimmed short and chunky, something the shape of the oil jars in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.” That’s nice, but with all due respect to LA where I’ve lived for years, and to Raymond Chandler, Accra is a much more interesting place. Mr. Chandler would have had a lot more to play with. Alas, he’s long gone, and we can only imagine how he would have done it.
            A week before the launch of COTS on July 12, 2011, I returned from a six-week visit to Ghana. You can read about some of my experiences on my blog under “2011 Trip to Ghana”  There really is never a dull moment in Ghana, particularly in Accra. Even crossing the street is an adventure. In contrast, on returning to LA, I was aware of a despondent, anticlimactic feeling over the routine and mundane nature of “developed living,” the sameness and yes, the relative dullness of it all. I wouldn’t go as far as to use the word dead, but there is a certain flatness, like music with little dynamic range. Your mind can easily zone out as you crawl along in Wilshire Boulevard traffic in L.A., but not a chance that would happen on Accra’s Independence Avenue, a street equivalent to Wilshire in importance.

            Besieged by hawkers selling everything from road maps to Granny Smith apples and by the polio victims who sit on homemade skateboards and effortlessly weave in and out of car lanes asking for money, some drivers consider them a nuisance. In fact the government recently tried to get all hawkers off the street  - good luck with that. However, these people of the street are of considerable fascination to me. I don’t relish poverty, but I do have an affinity for those caught up in it. I watch them carefully, studying their faces, their posture and gait, wondering about their backgrounds. Once when a skateboard beggar sailed up to my vehicle for money, I asked him about the polio that had afflicted him. He responded not with a woeful “poor-me” story, but with warmth and a bright smile that touched me.   
Now we go from the Agbogbloshie slum to here:

            Beverly Hills, you say? No, it’s Accra, a mansion in an area called Trasacco Valley. What a great name to include in a title, by the way: The Trasacco Valley Murder. Trasacco is an Italian company Someone told me about a rumor that the Costa Nostra has its hand in the Trasacco cookie jar. Really? Is that true? I have no idea, but it sounds good to me! Mafia and money in Accra - a winning combo. There’s bound to be a murder somewhere along the way.
            Now, take your pick, you can place your dead body in Trasacco or Agbogbloshie (or both) or anywhere in between, but I still have a personal preference for seamy and messy over wholesome and neat. I’ll take narrow, shadowy alleys any time over a posh drawing room with velvet curtains. Just look at these photos of Nima, a bustling town within Accra, and tell me you don’t sense that something wicked this way comes, or will later on, at least. If there isn’t a body yet, there’ll be one soon.

            Accra, and indeed Ghana as a whole, offers wonderfully rich cultural and economic contrasts against which to set a story. In COTS, the murder suspects come from all socio-economic levels, and that’s because life in Ghana lends itself to that kind of social mix. But there’s something else that fuels the milieu and makes writing about it so exciting: the evolution of Ghanaian society and the development of the country as a whole. It’s a country in transition – almost scary transition. People throw out GDP growth rates of anything from 13% to a ridiculous 22%. Change, rapid change with the upheaval that comes with it, is in large part what makes Ghana such a thrilling place to chronicle Darko Dawson’s adventures.
            This year, there is a brand new DNA lab in Accra. I paid it a visit, and although I was asked for security reasons not to give a full description of the building (not quite sure what that was about, but I digress) I will tell you that it looks fabulous both outside and in and still has that new furniture smell.
            One can’t very well speak of DNA labs in Ghana in the blasé fashion we talk about them in the States. In Wife of the Gods, there is no mention of DNA, in COTS, it assumes more importance even though the bulk of the DNA samples are still being flown out to South Africa for analysis, but in my next novel, all DNA analysis will be done locally in Accra. See the arc? It’s dynamic and has energy, and as we follow Darko, we experience these changes in almost real time as they unfold.
            All right, I’ve just talked myself out of a proposition. Leave everything be. Raymond Chandler has Marlowe in Los Angeles. Kwei Quartey has Dawson in Accra and wouldn’t change anything about that arrangement. Rest peacefully, Mr. Chandler. All is well.

Kwei Quartey


Michael - Thursday


  1. I am really looking forward to CHILDREN OF THE STREETS. I think WIFE OF THE GODS is one of the best books of 2010.

    The disparity between the lives of well-educated women in Ghana and the female children who become the wives of the gods is chilling. It is all the more horrifying because the practice is not a product of the author's imagination.

    WIFE OF THE GODS has such an important message that I posted it twice. Injustices are addressed when they are the object of media attention. The practice of trokosi should cause a public outcry.

    WIFE OF THE GODS and, I am sure, CHILDREN OF THE STREETS are books that belong on the top of everyone's To Be Read pile.

    Thanks, Kwei, for the books. Thanks to you, Michael and Stan, for bringing Kwei's books to the attention of those who wouldn't miss a day of this blog.

  2. Thank you, Michael and Kwei. I now have a new author to admire.

    I also am reminded of how badly the world responds to what can be prevented if only the right folk cared. Polio. I hate that word. Perhaps because I participated in the original Jonas Salk test group that eradicated it--or so we thought.


  3. Thanks to you Beth and Jeffrey for your praise and astute observations. Even as I was leaving Ghana on July 4 this year, there was an article in one of the national papers about the huge and ever-growing problem of street children (now being called "streetism") in Accra and other cities.

  4. Well, you've won me to reading Children of the Street. I will badger my library to obtain copies.

    I agree with you about preferring to read about the streets of a city rather than the drawing rooms of the rich -- not my choice in reading.

    And the polio issue is important. I remember getting polio vaccinations in 1955 in public school. A friend who is 90 had polio as a child in the U.S. and although she is tough and resilient, and doesn't let her disability get in her way, she is adament about the need for everyone to receive polio vaccines all over the world.

    This is an excellent post and I so look forward to reading this book.

  5. Thank you, Kwei, and thanks to Michael for bringing you to the party. Looking forward to both books.

  6. I've been meaning to read Wife of the Gods for ages now, but it just moved to the top of my reading pile. (Kwei, you seem to be writing books faster than I can read them.)

    Agbogbloshie is my new word of the day. Does it have a particular meaning?

    And interesting dichotomy--Agbogbloshie vs Trasacco. Sort of like Ghana and LA itself. What an exciting and enigmatic world you write about. Chandler would have gobbled this up.