Māwake Crime Review

Bringing you superb crime writing from around the world

Kia ora and haere mai; hello and welcome to the fourth edition of Māwake Crime Review, an initiative we began at Crimespree in 2018. On a regular basis I’ll be featuring great crime writers and crime novels from beyond the borders of North America and Europe. For those new to this column, Māwake is a word from the Māori language (the indigenous people of my home country, New Zealand) which can translate to ‘south-east sea breeze’. 

In Māwake Crime Review we’re harnessing that breeze, so to speak: highlighting terrific tales ‘blown in’ for crime-loving readers from the southern and eastern continents: Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Oceania (Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific).

I hope over the course of this series I’ll encourage you to try some new authors you may not have heard of, to step into new places alongside new characters. Each edition of Māwake Crime Review will include an interview with one or two crime writers, and reviews of three or four books. Future columns may be themed in various ways, or focused on a particular region, but for this instalment I’m once again sharing the love, covering all four continents.

Since this is still something relatively new, I’d love to hear your feedback or suggestions. Feel free to email the Crimespree editors or get in touch and heckle me on Twitter. 

But for now, let’s kick off with exciting Nigerian storyteller Leye Adenle, of whom none other than the great James Ellroy, the Demon Dog of American crime writing, said “Leye Adenle has my vote for crown prince of crime writers in the UK.” High praise indeed. 

Out of Africa

LEYE ADENLE AND HIS VIVID AND VIOLENT AMAKA TALES SET IN NIGERIA’S CAPITAL CITY

What inspired you to write EASY MOTION TOURIST and WHEN TROUBLE SLEEPS, and what draws you to the crime/thriller genre of storytelling in general? 

The inspiration for Easy Motion Tourist came from a conversation I had with my mum and three of my brothers. When we all get together, we discuss and debate every issue from global warming to the chance of finally finding intelligent life on Earth (or on other planets). And it’s not just all talk; we come up with solutions for all the problems of the world. 

This particular day we had segued into a particularly horrible topic: naked murder victims, usually female, and usually missing body parts, dumped on Nigeria’s highways, the apparent victims of black magic ritual murder. The victims, almost exclusively young females, are assumed to be sex workers and this got us into talking about decriminalization of sex work in Nigeria as a way to protect the women from such gruesome ends. 

It was in the middle of this discussion that I thought of another explanation for the murders, and the plot for Easy Motion Tourist came to me, and along with it the main Character, Amaka, who is in actual fact my mother – a woman who has dedicated her life to fighting for justice for women in her own way. 

When Trouble Sleeps, the second book in the series, draws its inspiration from the deadly game of greed known as politics.

Your first crime novel was told from the perspectives of several characters. When did you know you’d be bringing social activist Amaka Mbadiwe back again rather than her being a one-off (before your began writing EASY MOTION TOURIST, during its writing, after publication?), and what makes her such an interesting character for you to explore? 

Amaka was the hero of the first book even before it was written. I find that I enjoy spending time with her because she’s a lot like the women in my life. She is firstly inspired by my mother, she takes her name from two former partners, some of her backstory is from another friend, and she speaks like a woman I have admired and loved since I first met her many, many years ago. She’s also kick ass, which I like in people. 

What do you most enjoy about writing your crime thrillers set in Lagos?

Lagos is the most amazing character ever. She’s unpredictable, she’s beautiful, she’s rude, she’s unapologetic, she’s resourceful, and she always has time for fun. I suspect that writing about Lagos is going to be my one most enduring love affair.

As a Nigerian who doesn’t currently live there, what sort of responsibility (if any) do you feel when writing about your home country, and how you portray it? How have you felt bringing Nigerian settings and issues to a broader audience through the medium of crime & thriller stories (novels and short stories)?

In writing about Lagos, I think I have a responsibility to be honest. Not every face of Lagos is beautiful. I often get the question, ‘Is Nigeria really like that?’ My answer is alway, yes, because I’m telling a crime story. If I were to write a romance novel, I’d probably go to the places in Nigeria where even the trees look like they’re in love. I published a speculative fiction novel this year, The Beautiful Side of the Moon, and I set it in Lagos, on the moon, and other dimensions. Some of the Lagos locations are shared with Easy Motion Tourist and When Trouble Sleeps, but you encounter them through the pages of a book that’s got UFOs and Men in Black, and flying magicians, and a magnetic garden. Many murders away from the Lagos of a crime story.

What have you learned as an author over the writing of your books so far, and how has the experience of writing your third Amaka novel (which I understand is on the way) been different to your experience writing your debut?

I have learnt that I might never be able to quit my day job. I once did a calculation and determined that it has cost me more to write my first two books than I’ve so far made from both of them combined. I think this is the one significant thing that has changed about writing. I still enjoy the process like nothing else, but now when I write, it is with the solemn acceptance that this book will not make me rich. 

Who were/are your literary influences as an author, and what impact has their work had on your own storytelling?

I shy away from naming authors who have influenced me. All authors I have read have influenced me, even if I did not know it at the time. That said, I have read all of Chinua Achebe’s books and his Things Fall Apart is the only book that I read at least once every couple of years or so. Amos Tutuola also blew my mind with his The Palm-Wine Drinkard, and James Patterson’s Alex Cross made gave me freedom in ways too simple and too difficult to explain. 

At a time when as humans we seem to consume information in smaller and smaller chunks (Twitter, clickbait articles on the internet, listicles, using social media to curate our news intake, etc), what are your thoughts about the importance of reading books, and the place of books and authors in the changing global landscape?

I need a good novel. I need the escape. I need the way a great story transports one to a world the writer has dreamt up. I want to be captive for the duration of the story. I want to get to the end and wish it hadn’t come. I want to be totally immersed in the fictive dream and forget, howbeit for a few hours, that we humans have destroyed the Earth, that we continue to destroy the Earth, that we have hunted many species to extinction, that we kill majestic elephants for their tusks, that the world is in the grip of politics of division, that we have more nuclear weapons than it takes to destroy the earth many times over, that potentially insane people have access to said weapons, that Britain walked into a abyss of a thing called BREXIT, that turkey sausages exist. 

Which other African crime writers do you enjoy reading and/or would recommend to crime fiction fans? 

Oyinkan Braithwaite, Parker Bilal, Michael Stanley, Mukoma Wa Ngugi, Deon Meyer, to mention just six (and I can count). 

What can you tell us about your next crime novel?

Amaka is a bad ass, as ever. 

REVIEWS

ASIA

OUT by Natsuo Kirino, translated by Stephen Snyder (Vintage, 2004)

More and more readers are turning towards Japanese crime fiction in recent years, and for very good reason. The mystery roots also run very deep there; in fact the Mystery Writers of Japan began recognising their local genre’s Best Novel in 1948, six years before the Edgars. 

Tokyo author Kirino won her country’s Best Novel prize with this intense, horror-tinged tale fifty years later. After being adapted into a film, it then became the first Japanese crime novel ever nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Novel, after it was translated in 2004.

Four Japanese women, dissatisfied with their lives for various reasons, spend each night looking out for each other as they make boxed lunches at a bento factory. One night Yayoi finally snaps, strangling her violent drunk of a husband Yamamoto after he returns home bruised and beaten, having gambled their savings away at a strip club owned by a psychotic gangster. Life torn asunder, Yayoi turns to her colleague Masako for help, and together the four women chop up Yamamoto’s body and leave pieces in garbage bags across Tokyo. 

The discovery of bits of Yamamoto’s body sparks a murder investigation, which initially zeroes in on the gangster club owner, Satake. He loses his club and dedicates himself to finding and wreaking vengeance on the real killer. Friendships are strained and fracture between the four women as pressure mounts, leading to many unexpected consequences. 

Kirino adroitly tiptoes the tightrope of disbelief, delivering an unsettling and idiosyncratic tale that has its own internal morality and raises plenty of questions about the challenges and discrimination faced by everyday women in modern Japanese society. 

Readers whose mystery preferences lean cosier may be better to try Japanese masters like Seichō Matsumoto or Masako Togawa (the ‘PD James of Japanese crime’), but for those who can handle a creepy atmosphere with gory flashes, Out is an intense and clever tale that raises questions about wider society while it pushes its characters beyond their limits. 

LATIN AMERICA

SWEET MONEY by Ernesto Mallo, translated by Katherine Silver (Bitter Lemon, 2011)

Set in the 1980s among the messy aftermath of the military junta that terrorized Argentina for years following a right-wing overthrow of the government in 1976, Ernesto Mallo’s second Inspector Lascano tale is a vivid and blistering expose of Argentinean life of the time.

Buenos Aires is a city rife with corruption. Those in power are often more violent and criminal than the criminals they’re meant to catch. Despite the return of some sort of democracy, the after-effects of years of suspicion and tens of thousands of people being ‘disappeared’ means daily life remains turbulent. Perro Lascano is recovering from being gunned down by a death squad, but returning to his old job may be even more dangerous.

Lascano’s new Chief, a tainted man who despite his flaws valued and protected Lascano, is murdered. Dirty cops circle like vultures. Lascano wants to uphold justice and be a good cop, but his world may not let him. Honour and ethics are all well and good, but can get you killed. Meanwhile another relatively honourable man with a broken life, ‘Mole’ Miranda, is released from prison. A non-violent robber, Mole is forced to return to his former life despite wanting to go straight. His ‘one last job’ goes wrong, and Lascano is on his tale. 

Mallo delivers a gritty, atmospheric tale with its own style (eg dialogue is run-together in italics). As the slim but powerful crime tale unfolds plenty of broader issues are canvassed, giving Sweet Money a real sense of depth. Lascano is a philosophical hero, and the author muses on various topics throughout. The second in a trilogy, Sweet Money is a sweet read (in antipodean or surfer use of the word), and hopefully the third will be translated soon.

OCEANIA

THE LOST MAN by Jane Harper (Flatiron Books, 2019)

Melbourne author Jane Harper avoided any sophomore slump when she followed her massively successful Outback mystery The Dry (which scooped the CWA Gold Dagger among a clutch of other prizes), with terrific rain-swept bushland tale Force of Nature. Third time around, Harper lures readers back to the arid Outback, but federal cop Aaron Falk is absent. 

We start at the barren border between sprawling cattle ranches in heat-struck Queensland. This is no tourist Mecca of glistening beaches and vibrant barrier reefs, but instead a parched climate that every local knows can quickly kill. So why would Cam Bright, the golden middle child of the Bright farming family, leave the safety of his truck to wander to his death at an old stockman’s grave? The marks in the dusty earth tell a harrowing story: he scrambled for shade in the hours before he succumbed. An isolated, harsh death. 


As older brother Nathan and little bro Bub meet at the scene, questions swirl. Why would Cam, who seemed to have it all, take such a final walk? Had financial pressures broken him? What part was played by a woman from his past? Or is something more sinister at play? 

Nathan has been living in near-exile, but is pulled into a family situation overflowing with grief and secrets. Relationships fray and long-hidden truths come to light. Nathan is forced to confront and re-evaluate incidents from his own past, and how different ‘realities’ form. 

The Lost Man is a stunning standalone that shimmers with subtext and subtlety. There’s a taut elegance and quiet intensity to Harper’s prose as she surveys the pressures of Outback farming and examines the darkness that can fester within isolated communities. For a couple of years now we’ve talked about Harper’s special debut; it’s time we just talked about her as a special author.

Craig Sisterson is a former attorney who lives in London and writes features for magazines and newspapers in several countries. A lifelong fan of crime fiction, in recent years he’s interviewed more than 200 authors, chaired crime festival events on three continents, been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards (Australia), McIvanney Prize (Scotland), and Ngaio Marsh Awards (New Zealand), and helped launch the Rotorua Noir crime writing festival in his home country. You can heckle him on Twitter: @craigsisterson