Archive for the African fiction Category

Working your way up the foodchain: Michael Stanley talk about the slow process of becoming established writers

Posted in African fiction, crime fiction, international crime fiction, interview, police procedural, South Africa, South African writers, US writers, whodunit, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2009 by richardkunzmann

Michael StanleyI first met the writing duo Stanley Trollip and Michael Sears – who together form the nom de plume Michael Stanley – at the CapeTown Bookfair in June 2008, when Deon Meyer made sure to introduce the two authors to the South African literary scene. By the end of the year, two regular guys sitting in the crowd attentatively listening to the crime fiction discussions, were suddenly hot news: they’d hit the LA Times’ pick of the best ten crime novels of the year, were nominated for the Macavity Award, the Strand Magazine Critics’ Award and were finalists in the Minnesota Book Awards.

What makes these two authors stand out is not the fact that they’ve written a series that is set in Botswana, like Alexander McCall-Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. No, I suspect Michael Stanley sniffed a change in the wind and produced an undeniably fresh series that is as much fun as it is serious – a take on crime fiction that’s sorely needed as our collective psyche becomes exhausted with the moral fug that’s hung over us since September 9/11. There’s an intense focus on Detective Kubu and his circle of friends and colleagues, an attention to detail when it comes to Botswana that renders Michael Stanley’s work real rather than pastoral.

Richard Kunzmann: For those of us who don’t yet know who you are and how you came about such a highly likeable character as Detective Kubu, give us your summarised back story (and that of Kubu!)

Michael Stanley: Michael Stanley is the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. We’re both retired professors who have worked in academia and business. Michael is a mathematician, specializing in geological remote sensing. Stanley is an educational psychologist, specializing in the application of computers to teaching and learning, and a
pilot. We were both born in South Africa.

a-carrion-deathBecause we are both academics, our original intention in A Carrion Death was to have the ecologist as the protagonist. But we needed a policeman to run the formal investigation. And Kubu seemed to come fully created as though he was there waiting. His nickname is Kubu because of his size – “kubu” being the Setswana word for hippopotamus. Hippos in the wild spend most of the day in pools or rivers, with only their eyes and ears out of the water. They look deceptively docile, belying the fact that they kill more people in Africa than any other animal, trampling whatever lies between them and their objective. So with Kubu. On the surface he appears harmless; a convivial man with a sly sense of humor, who loves his wife, who is passionate about wine and music. But Kubu is a capable, wily policeman determined to rid Botswana of crime and corruption, no matter what gets in his way.Detective 'Kubu' Bengu's namesake

Richard Kunzmann: Both of you must have a deep love for Botswana. How did that come about?

Michael Stanley:When Stanley lived in the USA, he’d go back to South Africa every year to see family and friends. Being a private pilot, he would rent a small plane, fill it with friends, food, and wine, and head off to Botswana or Zimbabwe to watch game or birds. Michael was always one of the passengers on these trips. Over the years we had so many wonderful times in the Okavango or in the Chobe National Park that we fell in love with the country.

Richard Kunzmann: Diamond and drug smuggling are the core themes of your first and second novels. Are these issues close to your hearts or are they a serious affliction in Botswana?

Michael Stanley:Michael worked for ten years for Anglo American, a very large mining house originally based in South Africa. It is a major shareholder in De Beers, which dominates the world diamond market. And of course Botswana has the two richest diamond mines in the world, Orapa and Jwaneng, owned by Debswana, a joint venture between De Beers and the Botswana government. So it was an easy decision for us, as we planned our first mystery, to incorporate diamonds into the story. Once there were diamonds, it was a small step to think about how they might be used illicitly, so we came up with a strategy that would make several of our characters immensely wealthy if the plan succeeded. In reality, diamonds are well controlled in Botswana and there is minimal impact from “blood diamonds” as far as we know.

With respect to the drug trade, Botswana is one of the conduits into South Africa, so it is impossible to ignore. Obviously it is a source of great concern in Botswana, and since our protagonist works for the police, it is of concern for him too.

A Deadly TradeRichard Kunzmann: What struck me most about A Deadly Trade was Goodluck Tinubu’s back story, and the personal tragedy of Zimbabwe as evoked by the different characters. It’s almost as if someone had those tragic tales to tell you….

Michael Stanley: The tragedy of Rhodesia and now Zimbabwe is so stark that it didn’t need a real person to provide the details and pathos. We both know Zimbabweans, black and white. Listening to their stories, coupled with the bombardment of news, made it easy to create a story of personal tragedies and disappointment.

Richard Kunzmann: I thought A Deadly Trade was a lot tighter and leaner than A Carrion Death. How have the two of you developed as writers since your successful debut?

Michael Stanley: When we started A Carrion Death, we had no idea what we were doing. Neither of us had written fiction before, nor had we written together. So the process was slow as we tried to figure out issues of plot and character, as well as how to share the responsibilities of writing, and remain friends. It took us three years to finish the first book.

For A Deadly Trade, we were better organized. We had a good outline of the plot before we started writing. We had learnt a great deal about making our writing more concise and leaner, so it took less time to produce a better draft. We had also refined the way the two of us interact, making the overall process more efficient. A Deadly Trade took about 20 months to complete. There is no doubt that we still have a lot to learn, and we hope we can improve the quality yet again in our third book.

Richard Kunzmann: A writer duo is still an unusual thing to me. How do you work together? Can you shortly take us through the process? What’s easy about it? What’s difficult?

Michael Stanley: We’ve developed a strategy which we think works quite well. Upfront, we work out a map of the plot, a synopsis, and the timelines. We try to get together to do that, and it takes a considerable amount of time. After that, it seems there are usually areas where one of us has a particular interest or a mental picture of what’s going to happen. He’ll write a first draft, and that is the starting point for multiple iterations. Often we will each be working on a different section of the book. This phase we can do by email interspersed with long internet telephone conversations. Eventually we go through each section independently to make sure it’s smooth, stylistically coherent, and that the characters’ behaviors are consistent from one place to another. Perhaps surprisingly it seems to work. Most people can’t discern any changes of style as they read.

Communication is easy thanks to the internet, and sometimes when Stanley is in North America and Michael is in South Africa the time change allows twenty-four hour writing!

Of course, sometimes understanding why the other person doesn’t like a piece is hard. It’s so clear to the original writer! But if one of us is having difficulty with a sentence, chances are that many readers will also. So we listen to each other very carefully.

Sometimes our schedules and priorities don’t match, and that can be frustrating.

Overall, we think that writing together is slower than writing alone, but the benefits of having an immediate, interested reader and someone with whom to brainstorm far outweighs the drawbacks.

Richard Kunzmann: How much of your success would you attribute to the book and old-fashioned marketing legwork?

Michael Stanley: When we started writing we told ourselves that if the books did not succeed it should be because they were not good rather than not known. For A Carrion Death, we received little financial support from our US publisher, which is typical these days. Publishers spend almost all their promotional budget on big names. The US is such a gigantic market (about 150,000 books published in 2008, and about 7000 mysteries) that if the author does nothing, nobody will get to know about the book. Certainly our publisher sent out review copies to reviewers at newspapers and magazines, which was a great help. We suspect that the fact we were reviewed at all was because our book was set in a part of the world that is exotic to most reviewers. And perhaps because of the success of Alexander McCall Smith. The great reviews were because they liked the book.

We wanted a broader profile than the reviews alone. So we put up a website for people to visit (www.detectivekubu.com). We wrote pieces for blogs, magazines, and newspapers. We visited a few bookstores and did events, and attended a few conventions, like Bouchercon. And to people who signed up on our website, we sent an occasional newsletter bringing them up to date on the progress of the next book, as well as about our travels.

So to answer your question, old-fashioned legwork is necessary for most new writers. Only a very few succeed without it. However without a book that people like, marketing will help very little.

Richard Kunzmann: Where do you see your series going? What’s coming next?

Michael Stanley: We are currently working on our third book. A Carrion Death is set in the dry Central Kalahari. Most of the action in A Deadly Trade takes place in the lush riverine forests of the Linyanti in northern Botswana, and in the third mystery we are sending Detective Kubu south west to Tsabong and areas around the Khalagadi Transfrontier National Park.

Bushmen SanThe back story of the third book is the conflict between the Bushmen (or San) and the government. This is a conflict that has reached the courts several times in several guises. In a landmark case a couple of years ago, the Botswana Supreme Court ruled that the government could not relocate some Bushmen from the Central Kalahari National Park to settlements outside. Of course the real issue is how nomadic people, who do not believe in land ownership, live in a world of private property, farms and fences. And what is the responsibility of the government to provide education and shelter to people who don’t want to stay in one place? At an even deeper level, society has to address the issue of whether it has a responsibility to preserve cultures such as that of the Bushmen, and if the answer is in the affirmative, how it does that.

Richard Kunzmann: Are translations on the horizon?

Michael Stanley: With respect to A Carrion Death, as of now we have an Italian edition (Il detective Kubu) in print. The French edition (Un festin de hyènes – a feast of hyenas) will be released in September. And a German edition is scheduled for 2010. We have sold the rights to A Deadly Trade to the French and German publishers.

Richard Kunzmann: Can you tell us what are the five most important things you’ve learnt as writers?

Michael Stanley:
1) When you become overly fond of a piece of writing, it probably should be cut.
2) Leave a lot to the reader’s imagination.
3) Believe in your characters. They will push back at you if you try to take them places they don’t want to go.
4) Readers care more about the characters than they do about the plot.
5) Editors tell you what’s wrong, not how to fix it!

Richard Kunzmann: What are the five biggest challenges you’ve faced?

Michael Stanley:
1) Getting to grips with a coherent plot that allows flexible development but avoids dead ends.
2) Letting the characters show themselves rather than telling the reader about them.
3) Getting the book complete in good shape within a given time frame (for the second book).
4) Learning how to market the book to agents, editors and readers.
5) Concentrating on the writing at the same time as doing the marketing!

Read reviews of A Carrion Death and A Deadly Trade

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Review: A Deadly Trade, Michael Stanley

Posted in African fiction, book, crime fiction, international crime fiction, mystery, police procedural, review, South Africa, South African writers, thriller, whodunit, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 14, 2009 by richardkunzmann

Michael StanleyA week ago I reviewed A Carrion Death, written by Michael Stanley (the pen name of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip). Not only was it a strong first attempt at a crime novel set in an exotic setting, it was also a sheer act of determination and personal marketing that eventually saw the book break through to the LA Times bestseller.

A Deadly TradeWith A Deadly Trade, they are back and with a vengeance, too. This second book is tighter, leaner and more focused than the first. Michael Stanley is well on his way to establishing himself on the international crime thriller scene.

A man is walking back to his tent one night, at a remote resort deep in the heart o the Okovango Delta, when he’s brutally killed and mutilated. When dawn comes a second body is discovered and a third man is missing. The Botswana police have to fly into the remote area, and our hero Detective Superintendent Kubu Bengu and his new sidekick, Detective Tatwa Mooka, quickly establish that the two murdered individuals, and the prime suspect who was unsuspectingly taken to the airport that same morning, have links to the political turmoil in Zimbabwe and a drug smuggling ring in South Africa.

What is not immediately established is that all the guests at Jackalberry Camp on the night of the murders are very much involved, in one way or another. Though this hints at an Agathie Christie style investigation, there’s plenty of action in store.

Kubu Bengu is his usual likeable self, drinking a steelworks whenever the moment arises, or daintily dipping a Marie biscuit into his tea. And I’m glad to see that Ian McGregor has shed the staccato Scottish accent from the first novel, which was jarring to read. Two new characters stand out as fine examples of well-developed characterisation: Goodluck Tinubu, the well-loved teacher with a dark past, and Moremi Suthani, the eccentric chef with a Kwe bird on his shoulder. Dupie, the camp manager and a former Sealous Scout from Zimbabwe’s civil war past, also rings with authenticity.

The second novel is an improvement on the first, but some of my concerns from the first novel have remained. Our police officers seem extraordinarily happy to discuss the finest particulars of a murder case with just about anyone willing to listen, which doesn’t jive with police procedure. Some chapters grind the story to a virtual halt because Kubu and his friends painstakingly recap events for us. I have to compare this with Peter James’s excellent Looking Good Dead, which I’ve just finished. Looking Good Dead Detective Roy Grace also frequently recaps, but this is either mentioned as a one liner, especially if he’s filling in others; or, if it’s for the reader’s benefit, sums the entire investigation up in no more than three lines. A bundle of pages is never a good idea. I’ve stepped on that mine myself, plenty of times. There are unnecessary tracks of exposition in two of my novels, Bloody Harvests and Salamander Cotton , of which readers have been far too forgiving.

I particularly enjoyed Kubu’s discovery of Goodluck Tinubu’s history, but I don’t want to give too much away. Suffice it to say, there is true tragedy in his demise as a fallen hero, and Tinubu’s death seems a fitting waste of a human life – perhaps the perfect metaphor for the chaos in his home country, Zimbabwe.

Check out what others thought of A Deadly Trade at Goodreads .

Best music to read by: Miriam Makeba

Review & Giveaway: A Carrion Death, Michael Stanley

Posted in African fiction, Alexander McCall-Smith, book, crime fiction, international crime fiction, review, South Africa, South African writers, thriller, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 5, 2009 by richardkunzmann

no-1-ladies-detective-agencyalexander-mccall-smithAlexander McCall-Smith’s No. 1 Detective Agency introduced us to a delightfully fresh setting for crime stories, namely Botswana. His well-known work, featuring the much-loved Mma Ramotswe is a rollicking string of morality tales imbued with good humour and an African charm uniquely its own. But his stories can be seen as deflecting from the true nature of crime, hankering instead after an Africa that’s more nostalgia than reality.

a-carrion-death Not so Michael Stanley’s A Carrion Death.

The novel begins with two game wardens that discover human remains near a waterhole on the edge of the Kalahari. There’s not much left of it, just scraps of hair and bone, most of it devoured by scavengers. At first it’s suspected that the body belongs to a poacher, then a tourist who’d wandered off into the night. But when Senior Superintendent David “Kubu” Bengu of Botswana’s Criminal Investigation Department arrives on the scene, it’s cleverly established that not only was the body purposefully dumped there, persons unknown have conspired to hide the fact that the country’s most powerful corporation, the Botswana Cattle and Mining Company, is somehow involved. Not long after, Detective Kubu is probing into ancient rituals performed at the site by witch doctors, diamond smuggling that works its way around the Kimberly Process, and corruption at the highest level.

And all the while the death toll keeps spinning like a seven aces jackpot.

Kubu surely is the centrepiece of Michael Stanley’s work. His nickname meaning hippopotamus, he’s as huge as he’s smart, as garrulous and easy-going as he’s incisive and determined. While the investigation is quite bloody – there’s a scene where one of the killers breaks a sweat trying to snap a corpse’s arm on the edge of a bath – Kubu’s joyful life seems to counterbalance the brutality.

Unlike the majority of deeply flawed crime fiction detectives out there, Kubu’s greatest vice is food taken with a lovely Chardonnay. He’s so thoroughly normal compared to the genre’s other characters that he comes out looking unusual and refreshing, which is why one can see a good many readers taking a shine to this series.

As a debut novel A Carrion Death holds its own. The fact that it steadily fought its way to the LA Times bestseller list is testament to this. But in places the novel does slow to a snail’s pace before picking up again. Also, there are a number of shifts in time in the first acts, not only changing from past to present tense to explore one sub-plot, but moving backwards and forwards over a six week period, to fill in the gaps around the evil mastermind’s motivations. It all comes together in the last act, but one has to question whether this cross-cutting adds to the novel.

A Carrion Death is a strong beginning to what will no doubt turn out to be a fun series. A Deadly Trade, Michael Stanley’s second novel, has just come out, and will be reviewed later in this blog. Watch out for it.

Read it if you’re looking for a story set in a fabulously rich setting that’s unusual and new. Read it if you are the type of reader who is happy to digest larger sections of back story and character development. And definitely read it, if you’re on the look-out for a crime series that’s a little more light-hearted and warm than the usual stash of noir.

michael-stanleyI first met Michael Stanley when two incredibly polite gentlemen approached me to chat about books. Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip immediately gave me the impression that they are genuinely good people with a love for Africa and obviously Botswana. Check out their website here.

Give away!
I have one hardcover of Carrion Death to give away, which I will ask Michael Stanley to sign personally to the winner of a lucky draw that ends 30 May 2009. I’ll also have a further 2 paperback editions to shoot off to avid readers, provided you’re happy with a book in good, rather than excellent condition. All you need to do is post a comment on the review, even share your experiences of the books, and I’ll worry about the postage.

An interview with Michael Stanley will appear soon, with more giveaways!

Review: What Kind of Child, Ken Barris

Posted in African fiction, book, Cain Prize, review, South Africa, South African writers, writing with tags , , , , , , , on May 5, 2009 by richardkunzmann

what-kind-of-child Ken Barris is a South African author to watch. His catalogue of literary awards attests to this: the M-Net Book Prize, the Ingrid Jonker Prize, the Sydney Clouts Award, the Vita Award, a short-listing for the Caine Prize for Writing in Africa. But listing his achievements to drum up support for What Kind of Child is entirely unnecessary. From the outset of Barris’s fourth book, one is drawn in by the plain language, the effortless vivid descriptions. The novel breaks away from stereotypical conventions that permeate much of our literature today. Yes, this novel does touch on race, crime and class, like most South African stories, but its evocation of an unattractive society consumed by alienation extends well beyond the benchmark.

The narrative loosely follows three main protagonists: Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a dying tattoo artist who believes he was once a Spanish Conquistador; Luke Turner, a self-loathing libertine with an unusual appetite for women, cooking and death; and Malibongwe Joyini, a joyless child doomed to a hopeless life as a street urchin. Through their eyes we experience an unembellished Cape Town, fraught with perpetual exhaust fumes, forgotten historical sites, and drifters. Barris’s characters come into contact with each other without ever making contact; the protagonists’ relations are rendered meaningless by their inability to fully express themselves and their histories.
The novel evokes questions about the futility of living, its essential mundanity: life and death are unremarkable in the city. Even miraculous occurrences like the appearance of pterosaurs over Table Mountain are dulled by the all-pervasive anomie.

The tale is disquieting as it is bleak, more so because there seems to be nothing of value in the future for our protagonists. It seems that the author is asking this question about South African society, even its literature: are we so shackled by our personal and social history that the future is utterly stifled? The title of the novel embodies this question in the form of a question of its own: What Kind of Child… Its implied ellipsis allows the author to explore the nature of a familiar theme, namely Destiny.

One might ask why buy a book that paints such a dismal picture of Cape Town and its inhabitants, that seemingly conveys nothing but despair. The subject matter may be dark and gloomy, but the beauty of the author’s language provides a perfect counterbalance. Barris’s writing is economic and precise; it allows the reader to read both what is stated and not stated, which creates an incredibly rich narrative. His descriptions, from tastes and smells in the kitchen, to the rasping caresses of lovers, and the minutiae of people’s faces and bodies, are remarkably sensuous – a trait which is not often evident in male writers. His words make the reader’s journey through this disquieting underworld an enjoyable experience.

ken-barris Ken Barris’s writing turns the lives of unremarkable people into a remarkable book; it moulds the ordinary into something extraordinary, and impresses upon the audience a range of emotions that linger long after the last line has been read.

Short Stories 1: Is it time to rethink short stories?

Posted in African fiction, Andy Cox, Black Static, Christopher Fowler, crime fiction, international crime fiction, mystery, Peter Tennant, short stories, South Africa, South African writers, Third Alternative, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2009 by richardkunzmann

5466-bad-company-cover South Africa’s first anthology of short crime fiction was recently released, to much fanfare. Bad Company, edited by Joanne Hichens, features short fiction by Deon Meyer, Michael Stanley, Margie Orford, Andrew Brown, Mike Nichol, me and many more, and has a great introduction by Lee Child. The publishers, Pan Macmillan, should be commended for sticking out their heads to get the project done, because hardly any of the big-name publishers will touch an anthology these days. Why? Because there’s no money it.

They just don’t sell.

The project put me into a reflective mood about short stories in general. When a week after the launch I could still only find one or two reviews in major media, and I had to admit this is stunning coverage for an anthology, that mood became melancholic. Why, I thought, are short stories so shunned by the broader reading market, and hence publishers, who have to chase this bunch to break even?

One can easily comment, as many authors and publishers no doubt do, on how important short stories are to the industry. We can wax on in great self-righteous furore about how this form deserves more recognition, and how good writers first tested their mettle as short story writers before finding financial success. Or we can be even lamer and quote our high school teachers on the merits of the form: short stories are much loved because they are often highly experimental in nature; they depend on thoroughly inventive plots for their success; short stories are scalpels where novels are often crude cane machetes.

Nice, that. But it still don’t mean they sell.

Can we in the industry pull the blindfold from our eyes for a second, tear the short story from its pedestal, and talk honestly about the form? If short stories are boring – and a lot of them are – I’m not going to read them, okay? What do I care for a format where authors do dry-runs for later works of staggering genius? I’d rather buy the book when they’ve got their shit together, if you don’t mind. If an anthology costs me as much as a paperback and I’m likely to only enjoy ten percent of the stories, doesn’t that mean I’ve shafted myself? Plus, a short story hardly ever gives you the sense that you’ve been taken on an otherworldly trip, does it? So why buy them when its escapism I want?

One thing that draws me to short stories is precisely the fact that they’re such a niche product. You have to hunt for the best ones, even harder than you do for a great book, so when I find a great collection it makes me feel truly special. It’s like the editor has blessed me and only me with that bundle of treasures.

I find it sad that most publishers treat short story anthologies as a necessary evil, rather than the luxury good they really are. If I could have my way, I’d give back to short stories what they thoroughly deserve: luxury branding. Limited signed editions. Hardback. Hell, let’s go all the way and say gold embossed leather. Provided the collection is a good one, of course. People that read short stories are die hard fans, and the anthologies that are great become the stuff of legend. So why attempt a cheap mass market approach on a product that’s unattractive to the masses? Doesn’t make much sense to me.

black-staticI’ll take my favourite short story magazine as an example. The Third Alternative or Black Static as it is now called, was started in 1994 by TTA Press, run by the aloof but incredibly astute Andy Cox. Instead of trying to punch out reams of short stories in a hit and run fashion, he set the bar incredibly high and only published short stories that were truly innovative. Wrapping these up in some amazing artwork printed on high quality glossy paper, and adding stellar reviews and commentary by the likes of Peter Tennant, Stephen Folk and more recently Christopher Fowler, the magazine quickly defined itself as a luxury item that’s worth owning. At a time when even the low-cost fanzines on the internet appear and disappear faster than mushrooms in a desert, this magazine has gone from strength to strength. Quality content + Quality marketing = Die hard fans.

Like everything else.

Starting with this blog, I’ll be making the case for short stories, first talking about my favourite authors, then the editors and imprints that have brought them to light, followed by what is hopefully a good suggestion for putting together better anthologies that will sell has hot limited editions.

Review: Waiting for an Angel, Helon Habila

Posted in African fiction, Ben Okri, book, Cain Prize, Chinua Achebe, Helon Habila, Nigerian authors, review, Wole Soyinka with tags , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2009 by richardkunzmann

waiting-for-an-angel Love Poems, the first part of this book, won Habila the Caine Prize for African fiction. It is indeed a good narrative, and Waiting for an Angel is an attempt to enlarge the story, telling us were Lomba came from and what he was doing before he was imprisoned in a hellish Nigerian prison.

Habila’s various characters who twist and twirl around Lomba, the central poet and narrator, are all likeable and engaging. The historical context, namely Nigeria’s early-eighties political unrest, along with well-described ghetto scenes from Lagos, is satisfying, but the overall narrative does not hold very tight and may at times feel difficult to follow. One gets the impression that the author was under pressure to turn a strong short story into a novel because much of the narrative that follows Love Poems does not have the same lyrical quality and feels forced.

This is the first novel of a promising writer embarking on an odyssey in the footsteps of other Nigerian greats like Ben Okri, Chinua Achebe, and Wole Soyinka. – Hamish Hamilton

Review: A Beautiful Place to Die — Malla Nunn (Picador)

Posted in African fiction, book, crime fiction, international crime fiction, review, South Africa, thriller, whodunit, writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 7, 2009 by richardkunzmann

beautiful-place-to-dieThere’s a lot happening on the international crime fiction scene these days, and so much of it seems to be linked to Southern Africa. Roger Smith’s hardboiled Mixed Blood has become a pressure-cooker story on the international front: German publishers have snapped it up and the film’s been optioned with Samuel L. Jackson linked to the project. Then there’s Michael Stanley and the writing duo’s A Carrion Death , which recently hit the bestseller list in the LA Times . It appears as though South Africa is becoming a hotspot for thrillers and Malla Nunn’s debut A Beautiful Place to Die is one of many books breaking into the scene.

Turn back the clock to 1952, South Africa. The National Party is at the height of its power and, to paraphrase the author, not a year goes past without the government introducing some new heinous law that can be broken by virtue of a person’s skin colour.

The body of Captain Willem Pretorius is found floating in a river bordering on Mozambique, and Detective Emmanuel Cooper is sent from Johannesburg to investigate the killing. At first smugglers are suspected, but what Cooper eventually uncovers in the small town of Jacob’s Rest unleashes a political and personal storm that catches him wholly off guard.

On the surface, it seems that the townspeople had great respect for the captain. His family owned much of the business in the town, he was widely acknowledged as a white induna, or leader, amongst the Zulus, and appears to have had crime wholly under control. But as with all good mysteries, appearances are deceiving, and the peace in Jacob’s Rest, is no exception. The Englishman Cooper almost immediately runs afoul of the Captain’s four Afrikaner sons, and it is not long before the outsider is forced to form alliances with people at the fringes of society, in order to solve the case.

One is immediately struck by how one-dimensional all the Afrikaner characters in this novel are, and how the entire culture is ruthlessly vilified at every turn, when the author goes to great lengths to illustrate the complexities and conflicting moralities of the other characters. The junior police officer in the town, Hansie Heppel, is depicted as the village idiot to such extent that one wonders whether the character would ever have realistically been given a uniform; he is beyond parody. The white townspeople are routinely illustrated as zealous Christian fundamentalists, who have few qualities other than being inbred and mean. The women are milkmaids of bountiful mammaries, while the men are almost exclusively built like bulls, with the intelligence and temper to boot. A disappointment when one considers Detective Cooper. Our white detective from the big city is easy and comfortable around non-whites, yet his demons, associated with a failed marriage, his time in the trenches of the Second World War, and an even darker history further back in his childhood, is an achievement for a debut novelist. As is the old Jew Zweigman, a character very similar to the old shopkeeper in Richard Reve’s excellent Buckingham Palace. Though he sells his wares on the outer edge of white society, trading with blacks and “coloureds”, he too has a brooding history that’s resulted in his dear wife being a shattered husk of her earlier self.

The storyline stumbles in two places. At one point, a troubled man rather predictably emerges as the main suspect in Cooper’s investigation. The character dramatically shifts from a troubled lost soul to a heinous Proverbs-spewing rapist with only the vaguest explanation as to how he might have transformed himself in this way. Further on, Cooper and his romantic interest get into a pickle with very cold-blooded professional killers, and yet they escape what is an extremely harrowing and successful scene with a distraction that is implausible at best.

But let these objections not deter you. Malla Nunn’s prose is easy and accessible, her descriptions finely woven, the plot multi-layered, so that Jacob’s Rest and its people come alive in a memorable tapestry. The book’s strength lies in the metaphor that the town becomes for the racial tension in the country, at the time. The big houses and wide open streets belong to the whites, but they have no secrets the housemaids and garden boys don’t know about. Then there are the “kaffir paths” running in the veldt behind those houses and shops, trodden by those who are forbidden to walk proud in a white man’s town. The secrets hidden on these paths are invisible and inaccessible to the whites who have purposefully blinded themselves to what lies beyond their ideology. Cooper follows the clues into this world and discovers a world of paedophiles and porn, whores and drugs, and the white men who can’t leave non-white women alone. By stepping off the beaten track, the scales are removed from his eyes and he finally sees Jacob’s Rest for what it really is.

This metaphor, the meticulous build-up of the plot, and a very engaging Detective Emmanuel Cooper make this brooding mystery more appealing than most of the whodunits out there. It would be very interesting to see what Nunn does next with Cooper, who has the potential to become one of the great detectives of African crime fiction.

Malla Nunn was born in Swaziland but lived in South Africa during the height of apartheid. Of mixed blood, she fled the country with her parents at a young age, eventually settling in Australia, where she went on to become a successful filmmaker. A Beautiful Place to Die is her first novel.