Thursday, December 28, 2017

Murder in Africa

Michael - Thursday

As the year crawls to a close through the hiatus between Christmas and New Year, I thought back over some of the mysteries I’d read in 2017.  Most of them are African, and that’s partly because every month I write a piece called Africa Scene for the International Thriller Writers e-magazine The BigThrill.  The idea is to feature books (and their authors) set in Africa.  Most of the authors do live on the continent, but there are several who live elsewhere, but choose Africa as their setting for a variety of reasons.  I’ve discovered some really good authors, and have an excuse to fire questions at them. It’s been a lot of fun and I’ve met many of them and enjoyed that a lot as well.

Hopefully, readers of the magazine are intrigued enough to try some of the books, and experience a bit of sunshine noir.  African thrillers and mysteries have a lot to offer, and they are different!

So here’s a rundown of this year’s articles to give you a flavor. If any catch your fancy, click on the month for the author interview and more details about the book.

Lagos island
Our own Leye Adenle talked about Easy Motion Tourist, his debut thriller set in Lagos. Prostitutes are being murdered. It seems to be for muti—witch doctors’ potions.  But there’s a lot more to it than that as Amaka, whose mission is to keep prostitutes safe, and Guy, from the UK and the easy motion tourist, discover. Nigeria provides a fascinating backdrop for an original plot with a twisty ending.

Antipoaching team
February featured Paul Mendelson’s The History of Blood.  Paul has such a deep grasp of South Africa’s history and culture, to say nothing of Cape Town itself where his thrillers are largely based, that you’d have to believe he’s lived here all his life. No. He’s from England, but this is South African crime fiction at its best.

The body of a girl is discovered at a seedy motel with slit wrists. Suicide is assumed, but the autopsy reveals she has swallowed masses of cocaine wrapped in condoms. The hunt for the mule runners leads to other smuggling and the remains of an elite military group from the apartheid days. Paul’s detective has to unravel this nasty mixture, with lots of surprises along the way.

Kibera, Kenya
Michael Niemann was born in Germany and now lives in Oregon, but along the way he’s spent a lot of time in Africa. His protagonist Vermeulen investigates fraud for the UN, and pretty soon it leads him into very hot water. Legitimate Business was set in the refugee camps of Darfur; Illicit Trade, the second in the series, concerns human trafficking from Africa.

Uranium ingots
April brought us back to South Africa with Jassy Mackenzie’s heart stopping thriller Bad Seeds. During the apartheid era South Africa developed nuclear weapons, I guess for the same paranoid reasons that North Korea does today. After the government changed, the weapons were dismantled, but the nuclear material is still around. This story is as believable and scary as tomorrow morning’s headlines.

Any time Mike Nicol comes out with a new book, it’s an event. Agents of the State is very close to home, and its honey-loving president-for-life (of South Africa) is very close to someone else we know around here. Mike explores how this sort of state operates, and how the agents of the state get away with what they do. We’re not sure who the good guys are and who the bad guys are, and real life is like that. If you like sunshine noir and haven’t read Mike Nicol, you’re missing out.

Sally with friend
For a complete change of pace, take Sally Andrew’s second Tanie Maria mystery, The Satanic Mechanic. Everyone loves Tanie Maria and her luscious recipes from the Karoo. But she has real issues too, and the crimes she needs to solve are anything but cozy. Alexander McCall Smith called her first book “a triumph.” 'Nuff said.

One of Hayden Stone's problems
Arthur Kerns started his career in the US Navy, spent many years with the FBI, and then consulted with the intelligence agencies. He doesn’t like to say which ones, but there are no prizes for guessing the answer.  If anyone knows how this stuff works he does. His freelance agent, Hayden Stone, gets into all sorts of trouble with his unconventional methods of sorting out the bad guys. He’s all over Africa in The African Contract.

Weather map by Alex Latimer
Something completely different. Diane Awerbuck and Alex Latimer, both South Africans who usually write in other genres, team up as Frank Owen to write South, a dystopian and scary alternative history thriller set in the US. Okay, I said all the books are set in Africa, but I lied. Yet the book has very African roots. You’ll recognize apartheid in the South, walled off and isolated from the North as deadly viruses are blown in by the wind. And the wall across the country precedes Donald Trump.

Kwei Quartey lives in Los Angeles, but spends time in Ghana researching his novels and visiting friends there. Death by His Grace is the next in his police procedural series featuring Darko Dawson. We’ve been amazed at how his themes and ours often overlap although Ghana and Botswana are so far apart. Great sense of place when you join Kwei and Darko to visit Ghana.

Meeting of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Paul Hardisty is a Canadian who lives in Australia, but he shares with Paul Mendelson a deep knowledge and grasp of South Africa. Reconciliation for the Dead, based on the real story of “Dr. Death” from the apartheid era, exposes a gruesome plan from that time. Paul’s novels are passion driven; this one may be his best so far.

Martin Steyn is a young South African Afrikaans writer and Dark Traces is his first book in English. It’s a dark serial killer novel—he admits they fascinate him—but it’s the struggles of his detective with his past and the death of his wife who was the center of his life, and his problems fitting into the new police system, that make this book memorable.

(By the way, Michael Stanley's Dying to Live was also featured in another section of The Big Thrill in November.)

Dam at Amanzi
The year finished with the remarkable book Fever by Deon Meyer, South Africa’s best known crime writer. It’s a standalone set in a small town in South Africa in the near future when most of the population has been wiped out by a virus. I’m betting it’s his breakout book. This is what the London Times said about it:
‘It’s a crime thriller, but it’s far more. The first sentence is: "I want to tell you about my father's murder." The actual crime takes place more than 400 absorbing, emotional and atmospheric pages later; the solution comes even later than that. The narrator, who is aged 47, tells of his teenage years when his father founded a small settlement, safe from a virus that has killed most of the world's population. But as the community grew, so did their problems, their jealousies and the moving relationship between father and son. There are shades of Cormac McCarthy's superb The Road, but Fever grips even more.’

What can I say? If you don’t like African mysteries and thrillers, you haven’t been reading them!

Happy new year everyone, and happy reading!


  1. Michael, you've certainly been a busy boy in 2017! And from your reviews, I'll be busy in 2018 trying to keep up with all your recommendations. Thanks!

  2. Did you see that cartoon recently when a writer was killed when his TBR pile toppled on top of him? Well......

  3. I know the feeling. I make sure they live in the spare room when the piles get above head high.