This is the 19th book which counts towards the extreme level of the Global Reading Challenge and my final read for the African leg of the tour. It is set in contemporary Ghana and is written by a Ghanian born man who now lives in the US.
In the small town of Ketanu in Ghana a young medical student and volunteer AIDS outreach worker, Gladys Mensah, is murdered and Detective Inspector Darko Dawson is sent from the country’s capital to head up the investigation. The local Inspector believes that a young troublemaker is to blame for the crime, it’s just a matter of getting him to confess, but Dawson thinks they must look further afield.
Darko Dawson is a complex, engaging character who I thoroughly enjoyed meeting. He doesn’t succumb to what might be considered the usual faults of fictional detectives, he is happily married and doesn’t drink alcohol, but he has his share of demons. His young son is in dire need of medical treatment that Darko and his wife cannot afford, he is haunted by the unsolved disappearance of his mother when he was only a boy and he is prone to bursts of violence (though only ever against people who you feel like hitting yourself). He is also a dogged investigator and someone who struggles with the consequences of his actions and decisions and I liked him very much, imperfections and all.
The book is peppered with other well-drawn characters including several strong, credible females. The murdered woman’s Aunt Elizabeth is a delight and deals most admirably with being accused of witchcraft and other unpleasantness and, in the end, the wives of the local ‘fetish priest’ turn out to be made of tough stuff too. The darker characters are equally strong, engendering a smouldering fury in this reader. The ‘fetish priest’ who accepts gifts of young women to be his wives in return for the removal of curses upon the women’s families vies with the local police Inspector who refuses to see beyond his own prejudices when looking for the murderer for the title of most abhorrent individual in the book.
The other strength of the book is its exploration of modern Ghana where traditional beliefs in witchcraft and healers exist alongside modern scientific and medical practices in an often uncomfortable way. Quartey, who is a medical doctor, makes it fairly clear what side of any debate he would fall on but the story does allow for the co-existence of some beliefs and practices and also does a lot to explain why the traditional beliefs are attractive and comforting to people in a way that modern science might not be.
To top it all of there is a solid mystery to solve here, and a second one that might also be resolved as Darko uses the opportunity of his return to Ketanu to re-consider his mother’s disappearance all those years ago. For the most part the procedural elements of the story are well-handled, though I found it slightly unbelievable that several people could be arrested for the same crime without much in the way of evidence but that’s a relatively minor point. The ultimate solution wasn’t a huge surprise to me but it was revealed intelligently and its not being obvious to the people in the book was consistent with the culture that was depicted throughout.
I admit I was a little wary picking up this book as I tend to prefer reading books by people who live in the settings they are describing especially when those settings are exotic. However it’s clear that Quartey, who did live in Ghana for many years, has a sound understanding of and respect for the culture. He has managed to depict both positive and negative elements of that culture in a sensitive, non-judgmental way and added a solid mystery and terrific characters to that depiction. I am already looking forward to the second book in this series which is due for publication next year.
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Kwei Quartey recently wrote a tongue-in-cheek blog post about why his next book is a better buy than Stieg Larsson. I’m sure authors the world over are wondering what to do to compete with a years-dead Swedish bloke whose books won’t get off the best seller lists. Though Quartey’s publishers are none to shabby in the vacuous comparison stakes as the version I have has pull quotes and blurbs aplenty along the theme of ‘move over Alexander McCall Smith’ which makes about as much sense as labelling everything from Scandinavia the next Stieg Larsson (cosy this book is not).
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My rating 4/5
Publisher Random House [This edition 2010, original edition 2009]
Length 312 pages
Format trade paperback
Source I bought it