Thursday, December 6, 2018

African Sunshine Noir for Christmas

Michael - Thursday

It’s hard to believe that another year has reached its last month, but Christmas is around the corner and the new year looms, no doubt with more problems and crises. Before all that happens, I thought it would be good to look back on a selection of African crime fiction from 2018. Some of you know that I write a monthly piece called Africa Scene for the International Thriller Writers online magazine The Big Thrill. It takes the form of an author interview (usually by email) around her or his new book. The ‘rule’ is that the book needs to be a mystery or thriller and set somewhere in Africa. I’m not claiming that these are the ‘best’ such books of the year, but I do choose the ones I think are good, and 2018 was a bumper crop. Rather surprisingly, only three of this year’s authors are women, and despite my efforts to find more mysteries from elsewhere in Africa, seven are set in South Africa, although only five of them are by South African authors. (That’s fine, as long as the author knows the country well enough to provide a strong sense of place.)

So here’s a look back over the year. I strongly recommend all these novels, and if you’re intrigued enough to want to find out more, I’ve included the link to the original Africa Scene article. I hope you’ll give at least one of these books a try, and enjoy a taste of African Sunshine Noir!

January Sacrificed by Chanette Paul (Congo, South Africa, Belgium)

Chanette Paul
Sacrificed has a broad scope—starting in the Belgian Congo in the sixties, the ripples of murder and the rape of the rich resources of that country spread to South Africa and even to Belgium itself. Caz lives a quiet, solitary life, having been rejected by her moralistic husband and family. Unexpectedly, she receives a call from Belgium to say that the woman she thought was her mother is dying, and wants to tell her the true story of her birth. Reluctantly she goes to Belgium and learns that the people she thought were her parents were paid to bring her up by her real mother, who abandoned her at birth. But while Caz searches for the truth about her past, others are interested in her mother because of what she took with her from the Congo. The fact that Caz responds to the phone call starts a chain of intrigue which threatens all in her strange extended family.

The New York Journal of Books said: “Sacrificed places Chanette Paul among the classiest thriller writers of our day.”  High praise indeed for her first novel in English!

February The Inside-Out Man by Fred Strydom (South Africa)

The premise of The Inside-Out Man is that a man is to be locked into a room in his house for a year with absolutely no contact with the outside world, except having food supplied through a slot in the door. It’s solitary confinement, but the twist is that the rich, bored victim wants it, indeed is passionate about it. He hopes to be able to find himself once all the world’s distractions are removed. Then things go horribly wrong.

It’s really impossible to pigeonhole this novel. It’s a psychological thriller, a mystery and… Best read it and find out for yourself.

March Illegal Holdings by Michael Niemann (Mozambique)

Michael Niemann’s debut novel, Legitimate Business, featured Valentin Vermeulen, a forensic investigator for the UN. It’s set against the arid hopelessness of Zam Zam camp in Darfur. The sequel, Illicit Trade, addressed human trafficking from Kenya. Illegal Holdings is the third book in this intriguing series. It takes place in Mozambique against the backdrop of the vexed issue of land rights. Vermeulen is auditing a small aid agency, which has apparently misappropriated five million dollars, but the corruption goes much further than the missing money.

For over thirty years, Michael has been interested ‘in the sites where ordinary people’s lives and global processes intersect’, and he has travelled and written widely about Africa and Europe as part of his academic work in International Studies.

April Sibanda and the Black Sparrow Hawk by CM Elliot (Zimbabwe)

Gubu transport
Inspector Jabulani Sibanda is smart and dedicated, but he doesn’t have much to work with at his small police station in Gubu in Matabeleland.  His boss is self-serving and uninterested in anything but his own advancement, his assistant, Sergeant Ncube, is not the brightest and has his mind mostly focused on his stomach and his three wives (in that order), and his transport is an ancient Land Rover, lovingly cared for by Ncube.  All of them are fascinating and enjoyable characters.  The mysteries are clever and intriguing, too!

CM Elliott has the perfect background for the series having spent forty years in Zimbabwe with her game ranger husband pioneering a tourism business.  She says she lived in the Hwange National Park continuously for twenty years “in an assortment of tents, tree-houses and assorted bush dwellings, dodging a hodgepodge of charging elephants, rhino, buffalo and a rather angry spitting cobra” before moving to Bulawayo. Sibanda was optioned for a TV series this year.

May Apostle Lodge by Paul Mendelson (South Africa)

View from Apostle Lodge
Paul Mendelson’s debut Vaughn de Vries thriller, The First Rule of Survival, was described by Lee Child as: “An excellent, uncompromising crime thriller made even better by its setting.”

Last year the fourth in the series, Apostle Lodge, came out.  A group of boys discover the body of a woman who seems to have been abused and then starved to death in an empty house, Apostle Lodge.  Because of the circumstances, Vaughn immediately suspects that it’s not a single crime but part of a series.  He finds it hard to attract the focus the crime deserves because a terrorist bomb blast has recently shaken Cape Town and the police are hunting for the perpetrators. As the cases progress, Vaughn finds himself sucked personally into both of them.

If you think serial killer thrillers are formulaic, Apostle Lodge will change your mind. It’s a very different and intriguing take on the subgenre. In my view this is the best book so far in an excellent series.

June Steal a Few Cents by Rupert Smith (South Africa)

Coal mine conveyor
Mpho Mamela, a young accountant for a coal mine, is found horribly mangled by a massive conveyor belt that transports the coal. He had no reason to be in the area, and what is at first accepted as a tragic accident starts pointing to a homicide as Stephen Wakefield, the in-house lawyer, puts together the case for the inevitable state enquiry. He discovers that Mpho’s lover was jailed for ‘stealing a few cents’, while Mpho himself seems to be involved with a senior figure stealing a few millions.

Rupert Smith spent 25 years as a successful corporate lawyer in Johannesburg before joining a coal mining company as part of its senior management. By the time he retired, he knew the mining industry from the inside – how things are supposed to be; how they are presented publicly; and how they actually are. This is a deep inside look at the mining industry, and an impressive debut.

July Our Fathers by Karin Brynard (South Africa)

Recovering a stolen vehicle
Our Fathers is a book around big themes in South Africa—the decay of family units, alienation by place as well as race, and different views from different groups as to the relationship between races in the country. The two different stories in Our Fathers are linked through Albertus Beeslaar, a captain in the South African Police service. In the one, Beeslaar, who is on holiday in Stellenbosch, is sucked into the vicious murder of the wife of a property magnate, and finds himself supporting the investigation of a young and smart black woman detective.  In the other, his previous girlfriend is hijacked.

Karin Brynard is one of South Africa’s best thriller writers in Afrikaans. It’s great that her recent books can now find a wider audience in English.

August The Carnivorous City by Toni Kan (Nigeria)

Abel Dike leads a quiet life as a teacher in a regional town when he receives a brief message that his brother, Soni, is missing. He knows that Soni is a criminal—and a very successful one—and they have an ambivalent relationship, but he immediately heads for Lagos to try to discover what has happened. He takes on the carnivorous city. Although he moves into his brother’s mansion, over the next few days he is exposed to the extremes of Lagos.

Toni Kan lives in Lagos and has explored his city in poetry and short stories, culminating with with this powerful novel.

September No Ordinary Killing by Jeff Dawson (South Africa)

Cape Town circa 1900
No Ordinary Killing takes us to the Cape at the time of the Boer War and seamlessly weaves a historical mystery and thriller. There are two interlinked threads. In the one, Captain Ingo Finch – a doctor in the Royal Medical Corps – becomes involved almost by accident in the investigation of the murder of his commanding officer Major Cox in Cape Town on Christmas Eve. The other follows Mbutu – a black man – who is dragooned into helping a mysterious lieutenant out of Kimberley past the Boer siege. They see the war and its participants from quite different perspectives, but their stories come together at Cape Town.

Jeff Dawson is a well-known journalist and author of non-fiction. He is a long-standing contributor to The Sunday Times Culture section. Turning his hand to crime fiction has been no less successful.

October Madagascar by Stephen Holgate (Madagascar)

Robert Knott is a diplomat at the US embassy in Antananarivo. He has spent his career abroad, and has finally landed up in Madagascar. Having traded a drinking problem for a gambling one, he is hardly the stereotype successful diplomat. Robert has the unpleasant task of visiting Walt Sackett, who is being held in prison essentially for ransom. The elderly man has an attractive young Malagasy girlfriend Nirina and Robert dismisses her as a gold digger. Yet, she is willing to do anything to help Walt. Walt and Nirina are the most sympathetic characters in the book and the latter part of the story is their quest for freedom. Much against his will, Robert finds himself sucked into their problems.

I’ve visited Madagascar and this is not an easy culture to weave into a book. Stephen has done so with sympathy and affection, at the same time constructing a dramatic thriller with rich characters and subtle humor. Publisher’s Weekly –in a starred review—said: "Holgate has created a memorable lead character and made Madagascar, where the 'implausible is not only possible, it is mandatory,' palpable. Le Carré fans won’t want to miss this one." I have no quarrel with that assessment!

November Absolution by Paul Hardisty (Egypt)

Paul Hardisty has made a name for himself with his powerful issue-driven thrillers featuring Claymore Straker, a South African who discovered the horrible truth behind South Africa’s war in Angola. In the first two novels The Abrupt Physics of Dying and The Evolution of Fear, we follow Straker as he tries to find his way after those traumatic events. In Reconciliation for the Dead, he attempts to resolve – unsuccessfully – his issues by relating his story to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Absolution is the final book in the set, and Claymore has to find a purpose to carry on. You can read Absolution without reading the other books first, but I’d be surprised if you don’t want to get your hands on all of them.

December Sleeper by Mike Nicol (South Africa)

Cool-cat surfer Fish Pescado and his ex-spy girlfriend, Vicki Kahn, are back. The minister of energy is murdered. His lover hires Fish to find the killer, but then disappears herself. A much deeper game is going on, and one that sucks Vicki back into her old profession. Spies, terrorists, a briefcase of enriched uranium, and a sleeper all come to a head at a farm north of Cape Town.

Mike Nicol
Mike Nicol is the best stylist writing in the thriller genre in South Africa today – his machine-gun language, tense plotting, and nice and nasty backdrop of Cape Town makes each of his books impossible to put down. If you haven’t tried a South African thriller, try Sleeper. You’ll be hooked.

1 comment:

  1. What a list! You’re one busy dude, and ITW’s members are lucky to have your column.