Thursday, January 9, 2020

Why we went backwards

Stanley - Thursday

Two days ago, our seventh Detective Kubu mystery hit the bookshelves in North America. It is called Facets of Death. What sets it apart from the other six is that it is a prequel.

The first Kubu novel was A Carrion Death which was set contemporaneously with its publication in 2008. Each successive book followed the same pattern. After our detour to the stand-alone thriller Dead of Night outside North America (Shoot the Bastards in North America), we wanted to return to Kubu and decided to return to his professional roots.

When we started writing A Carrion Death, we didn’t plan that Kubu would be the protagonist. As novice novelists, we heeded the the advice of the experts, who said we should write about what we knew. So, as academics ourselves, we planned that a brilliant young ecologist would discover a body that had been left in the desert for hyenas to devour and go on to solve the mystery. 

However, it was obvious to our young professor that it was no accident that the body was lying naked on the Kalahari sands. It was a case of murder, so the police had to be called in. So, with much amusement, we sent a detective, David Bengu, from the CID headquarters in Gaborone into the Kalahari in his Land Rover. Let's make him big, we said. Very big! So David Bengu became David 'Kubu' Bengu. His nickname means hippopotamus in the Setswana language. Ho ho ho, we laughed and had another glass of wine.

It's a long drive in unfavourable condition from Gaborone to where the body had been found in the middle of the Kalahari Desert, so we had to find things for Kubu to do.

First, he provisioned himself with sandwiches and something to drink (non-alcoholic because he was driving and on duty). After all, big people have to eat a lot. Then, he brought along some cassette tapes of some of his favourite operas. Ho ho ho! A Botswana detective who loves opera! Giggle! And then he sang along with them - in his only-sing-along-when-no-one-is-around baritone. Clink! Another toast.

We were really enjoying this character we were developing.

He also had time to muse about how a Bushman school friend had shown him how to see clues of things hidden in the desert, such as the stone-like Lithops plants and the trapdoor spiders. Aha, we said. That was the spark that made Kubu want to become a detective. He would train himself to look beyond the obvious.

It can be really difficult to find Lithops.
Trapdoor spiders build their homes in the ground.
Trapdoor spider
 By the time this larger-than-life character had visited the scene of the crime and interviewed the men who had found the body, he made it clear to us that he had to be the main character. That came as a complete surprise. We thought we were in charge of the story.

Fortunately for us, it turned out that Kubu was a major attraction for readers. Marilyn Stasio in the New York Times summed up the matter succinctly in her review of the book: “Readers may be lured to Africa by the landscape, but it takes a great character like Kubu to win our loyalty.” 

We were delighted that Kubu won readers’ loyalty, but the fact remained that he was unplanned. 

How well did we actually know him? 

He was smart and good at solving problems. Unlike many detectives in police procedurals, he was happily married and sober almost all of the time. Of course, during the series his character developed, his relationships with his wife, parents, and colleagues deepened, and he became more solid, more three-dimensional. There were clues about his childhood in the books—things that had come up as we went along. 

We knew he had loving, traditional, but Christian parents, and that their minister had arranged a scholarship for him at an excellent private school in Gaborone. We knew of his Bushman friend. We knew he loved to do puzzles with his father. We knew where he’d met his wife. But there was nothing that explained how he’d gone from school to being the star detective in the Botswana Criminal Investigation Department. It was not just a hole in his background, but, in a way, a gap in his character.

Diamonds have always been one of Botswana’s most important exports and allowed the newly independent country to flourish. The two richest diamond mines in the world are there, owned by a joint venture between the government and the diamond giant De Beers. The fact that the country was almost totally reliant on diamonds for its success made us wonder about the impact of a massive heist. Could it shake the country’s financial foundation?

Second largest uncut diamond ever was found in Botswana a few years ago.
It is 1109 carats and named Lesedi La Rona (Our Light). 
 We decided to address both the issue of Kubu’s early role in the CID and a robbery at the height of the diamond boom by writing a prequel to the series—a Kubu mystery that starts the day he joins the CID as a new detective straight out of university without ever having to be a constable on the beat. 

Immediately things started to take shape. Kubu’s first case is a minor matter concerning a few suitcases going missing at Gaborone airport. Yet it’s a challenging puzzle, and he loves it. However, the other detectives, who have come up in the CID the hard way, have no time for him. He has to struggle to find a place for himself. Sometimes his new boss, Assistant Superintendent Mabaku (who will later become director of the CID), seems disappointed in him. Then, a massive diamond robbery takes place and suddenly everything changes. Everyone is thrown into the case, even the raw detective in his first week on the job.

As we wrote the prequel, we were delighted to watch Kubu develop, having insights, but also making the mistakes that only experience can avoid. He earns respect, but also opprobrium. And as Mabaku comes to appreciate his talents, Kubu becomes more and more central to the case. Eventually, they deduce who the mastermind behind the robbery actually is, but they have no strong evidence. Now they have to find some way to catch him, and Kubu and Mabaku both find their careers on the line—in Kubu’s case, before his career has even begun. 

By the end of the book, Kubu has learned a lot about being in the CID and how to interact with his colleagues and his superiors. He has also fallen in love with a wonderful women, and sees some hope that his feelings are reciprocated. 

Writing Facets of Death was a journey of exploration for us. We learnt a lot about how Kubu became the CID’s best detective and about who he is as a person. We know him better now. 

It was fifteen years between putting fingers to keys for A Carrion Death and for Facets of Death. We enjoyed writing the prequel just as much as the debut - perhaps with just a little less wine. We hope readers will enjoy the young Kubu’s journey also.


  1. Well I am looking forward to it! And it's interesting how he. Kubu, began to speak to you as a character, a character that you both liked. I'm 13-14 books into a series now, I can't imagine spending all that time at the keyboard with two characters I couldn't stand the sight of.

    1. I simply love Kubu and can't wait to get into his latest--first--adventure. In fact, I'm going to sign off right now so that I can order it! Bravo M&S.