A Carrion Death
By Michael Stanley
HarperCollins, 480 pp., $23.95
Mystery fans may feel they know Botswana. But readers who have come to love this land-locked African nation through Alexander McCall Smith's sweet "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" series will be shocked by the Botswana they find in Michael Stanley's debut venture, "A Carrion Death." Thorn acacias still thrive in the dry grounds, and young people still address their elders politely as "Rra" or "Mma." But as this new series opens, that beautiful sere countryside is marred by a hyena gnawing at the remains of a human corpse, a body that has had its hands and teeth removed to prevent identification.
This grisly find makes for a dramatic opening, but readers who can stomach it will be rewarded by a complicated police procedural that's more smart than bloody, particularly once Detective David Bengu, nicknamed "Kubu," is called in. So-called because his immense girth reminded an old school chum of a hippo, "kubu" in Setswana, this detective has both the seemingly slow and gentle manner and the underlying ferocity of his namesake. Like such great fictional detectives as Guido Brunetti (from Donna Leon's Venetian series), Kubu appreciates the finer things in life, including good food, music, and the love of his intelligent wife, Joy.
Kubu is a jolly soul, singing along with his beloved opera CDs with a voice more distinguished by gusto than talent, and planning his days around his next cold, frosty steelworks (a soft drink made of cola syrup, ginger ale, soda water, and bitters). But the oversize detective is no fool. As more people go missing, he senses a conspiracy involving serious money. Even when his boss, the otherwise respectable Jacob Mabaku, director of the Botswana Criminal Investigation Department, might be tempted to give the benefit of the doubt to the rich, white Hofmeyr clan, which controls diamond mines and land, Kubu doesn't stop digging. When an apparent break-in at Hofmeyr's sterile, modern office is revealed to be an inside job, thanks to Kubu's careful consideration, he begins to piece together a complicated plot that involves multiple villains and various schemes to smuggle drugs and diamonds. Because the book switches points of view, readers may be able to stay one step ahead of the protagonist, but not by much. In fact, not until Kubu starts untangling the different conspiracies are the identities of all the players - and all the victims - revealed.
That's a lot of plotting for a debut mystery. But Stanley, the pen name of writing partners Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, pulls it off with aplomb. The story, with its interlocking strands, is complicated but well thought-out, with clues that will have readers flipping back chapters to check alibis and opportunities. The multiple voices can be slightly confusing at times, but the team's clear writing leads readers through the twists. If some of the villains, particularly the icy blonde Dianna Hofmeyr, remain less than fully fleshed, most of the characters in this first outing are utterly believable, for good or ill. And many, including Kubu's new friend, Professor Bongani Sibisi, hold great promise as series regulars. Kubu himself is a marvelous creation, his distinctive characteristics - his weight, his taste in music - as well considered as the plot. And if his Botswana is more violent than McCall Smith's, it is depicted with its distinctive beauty intact as well. This is a marvelous debut, and with any luck, Kubu's next outing will be as filling and tasty as one of the large man's dream meals.
Clea Simon is a freelance writer and the author of "Cries and Whiskers."