Māwake Crime Review

Bringing you superb crime writing from around the world

Kia ora and haere mai; hello and welcome to the second edition of Māwake Crime Review, a new initiative here at Crimespree Magazine in 2018. 

Each issue I’ll be featuring great crime writers and crime novels from beyond the borders of North America and Europe. For those who missed the first edition, Māwake is a word from the Māori language (the indigenous people of my home country, New Zealand) which translates to ‘south-east sea breeze’. 

In this column we’ll be harnessing that breeze: 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 something 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 things off with mystery writing duo Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, retired professors who’ve teamed their talents to pen an award-winning series about a Botswanan detective nicknamed Hippopotamus.


WITCH DOCTORS, BLOOD DIAMONDS, AND KALAHARI BUSHMEN 

MICHAEL STANLEY AND THEIR KUBU BENGU SERIES

What inspired you to originally team up to write the Detective “Kubu” Bengu series? What draws you both to the crime fiction genre in general? 

We’ve been friends for many years, and one of the activities we’ve enjoyed together is exploring the wildlife areas of southern Africa. Stan is a pilot, so we would gather friends, food and wine, rent a plane, and fly into some amazing places. One of these is the Savuti area of the Chobe National Park in Botswana. On one occasion, we witnessed a large pack of hyenas hunt and kill a wildebeest. Over a few hours, they consumed it bones and all – only the horns and hooves remained. After a few glasses of wine later that night, we thought what a wonderful way this was to dispose of a body after a murder—no body usually means no case. It seemed an intriguing premise for a murder mystery.

We’ve both worked collaboratively in our academic lives – Stan has written several (non-fiction) books with co-authors, and Michael has always worked with other people on research. So it seemed natural to try our hands at writing fiction together—even though it took us quite a few years to actually get around to doing it. We’ve both read a lot of murder mysteries over the years, and enjoy the puzzle-solving aspects, as well as the social commentary that can form the backdrop to an entertaining story. In the case of A CARRION DEATH, it was blood diamonds and the exploitation of the resources of countries, with little regard for the needs of the local people. It took us a while to realise that our hyena premise wasn’t a plot, and that a backdrop isn’t a story. In fact, we had a lot to learn! But three years later, we had the first draft of the book.

How has your writing partnership evolved through the writing of the Kubu tales? Has the process of collaborating on the most recent tales differed to the way you worked together on the very first book a decade ago? 

We think we have learned a lot, and in some ways the process is smoother. Perhaps this is because we have discovered that we are really pantsers—we are happy to make up the story as we go along without a detailed outline. With our first book, we were learning the basics of writing fiction, and much of our time – and much of our writing – went into that. 

Our process now isn’t that different from our first book. We may still do twenty drafts of a chapter, flipping it back and forth between us by email and discussing over Skype. We think we write better now and more smoothly.

When did you know that Detective Bengu was going to be a series character rather than a one-off, and what makes him such an interesting character for you guys as writers that you bring him back again and again?

We’d never thought of it as a series, until our agent told us that the editor wanted a two-book contract and needed the synopsis of the second book almost immediately. It was the fastest plot we’ve ever dreamt up! In fact, Kubu wasn’t even going to be the protagonist of the first book, let alone a series. We were following the old adage about writing what you know, and had chosen a smart, academic ecologist as the protagonist. 

But when a murdered man is discovered, you have to have a policeman investigate. Kubu climbed into his Land Rover – with plenty of sandwiches, of course – and headed into the Kalahari. As he travelled, he contemplated how he’d become a detective, thinking back to learning to see beyond the superficial from a Bushman school friend. By the time he reached the scene of the crime, he had taken over as the main character.

As to why we keep writing Kubu mysteries, part of the answer is his popularity with readers. However, he keeps evolving for us. In A DEATH IN THE FAMILY his beloved father is murdered, and he’s excluded from investigating the case, aggravating his grief with anger and frustration. We have to keep challenging him and thus challenging ourselves.

What do you most enjoy about writing the Detective Kubu books? 

The best part is the collaboration. We still greatly enjoy working together and brainstorming plot and characters. Sometimes we are forced to undertake research trips together to wonderful places in Botswana and spend time absorbing the atmosphere and trying out the food. Writers have to face such things for authenticity.

What have each of you learned as an author over the writing of the six Detective Kubu books so far? In what ways was writing the most recent books in the series different to your experience writing the first book or two? 

We have more confidence in what we are doing, and we may be more adventurous. The latest book, DYING TO LIVE, postulates a previously unknown plant in the Kalahari that can extend life. The backstory is human greed and how it affects all the characters. Even Kubu and his wife Joy are tempted when their adopted daughter, who is HIV positive, starts to reject her antiviral medication. It’s a big theme, and we probably wouldn’t have tried something quite so challenging earlier on in our writing career. 

Your books feature a portly hero who’s a good detective but can veer towards comical at times, and plenty of humour salted in, but at the same time you delve into some dark and very serious issues – some quite specific to Africa and others more universal. How important is it to you as authors to balance light and dark, to sprinkle humour while addressing serious issues? 

We find the humour pretty natural. Kubu sees himself as a new-age man, yet his domestic skills don’t go much beyond boiling an egg. Smart as he is, he’s still able to convince himself that if a salad for lunch will help him lose weight, he’ll eat one before he has his usual pizza.

As to our themes, we like to explore issues that are relevant to southern Africa. They’ve included blood diamonds, the aftermath of the bush war in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, the plight of the Bushman peoples of the Kalahari, the power of witch doctors and their greed for human body parts for black magic, and the impact of the growing Chinese involvement with the continent. However, in the final analysis, our stories are for entertainment. Perhaps the humour helps to make sure we don’t ever lose sight of that.

On a related point, how important is it to you to address such issues in your crime fiction, to perhaps expose readers to issues they may not realise play a part in modern African life? [I think you guys strike the balance well between dealing with big themes without becoming polemic]

Thank you. We believe that the societal issues not only offer the reader a view of a different culture, but also expose them to some deep issues in African life. We do see this as important to our fiction, and hope that they intrigue the reader, perhaps even to the point of reading more about these issues. However, even though we often do have quite strong views of our own, that must never be forced into the narration. The tension between opposing views must develop from the attitudes and life experiences of our characters. By offering both sides of an issue in a balanced way, hopefully we expose the situation without preaching or trying to argue a specific point of view. Part of the challenge to the readers is to form their own conclusions.

Which of your Detective Kubu books did you most enjoy researching and writing, and why? 

Michael: I would choose DEATH OF THE MANTIS because it revolves around the Bushman of the Kalahari. They are truly fascinating people whose nomadic culture is rapidly fading. Learning more about them, visiting the areas where they live, and having the chance to make the case from both sides was intriguing and appealing. Maybe we succeeded, as the book was shortlisted for an Edgar Award and won the Barry Award for best paperback original.

Stanley: I also enjoyed researching DEATH OF THE MANTIS, both for the reasons Michael gave, but perhaps even more so for the insights it gave me into how arrogant most of the Western researchers were when trying to learn about the Bushmen. They would often arrive with a large caravan comprising researchers, support staff, and other hangers-on, and head into the desert to ‘discover’ the Bushmen. They would employ a translator through whom all communication took place. Typically, they had no way of corroborating whether the translations were accurate or whether the translator was injecting personal bias. In addition, the preconception of who the Bushmen were and how they lived was usually a romantic, paternalistic one. Although I learnt a lot from reading these books, I also thought there was a liberal dose of fantasy.

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

Michael: From South Africa, I would recommend Deon Meyer, Mike Nicol, and Paul Mendelson. Further afield, I enjoy Kwei Quartey’s books set in Ghana and Leye Adenle’s books set in Nigeria.

Stanley:  A disappointing reality that I’ve found as I’ve gone to crime conferences is how few people have read any books by African writers.  So, my first answer is any book – take a chance and taste different cultures. The people Michael mentioned are all excellent, contemporary African writers, to which I would also add Margie Orford, Jassy Mackenzie, and Sifiso Mzobe. 


REVIEWS

ASIA

Bangkok 8 by John Burdett (Vintage, 2004)

You’d have to go a long way to find a more unique hero than Burdett’s Bangkok police detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, and it’s worth going back to the beginning of this outstanding series and reading right through. Sonchai is a fair-skinned Thai, the son of a local prostitute and US soldier, whose resume include criminal, Buddhist monk, and cop. 

Kickstarting the series, Sonchai’s partner is killed when the duo discover an African-American marine locked inside a car with maddened snakes. Swearing vengeance, Sonchai burrows into Bangkok’s desire-driven underbelly, tracking a sinister predator while trying to balance between the sacred precepts of his religions and the seamy delights of his city. 

Burdett’s storytelling, like his setting, fizzes with energy. The writing is fresh and original, as are the characters. Burdett does a fine job weaving both philosophical questions and the hallucinogenic, contradictory atmosphere of Thailand’s capital into the exciting storyline.

Sonchai is a fascinating and fully rounded character, full of unique traits and messy contradictions. He draws you in, and fair screamed for an ongoing series (luckily Burdett has delivered one, six books and counting). Simply put, BANGKOK 8 is one of the best debuts I’ve read in the past decade and a half. It delights both during and after the read.  

Like those in the top echelon of global crime writing, Burdett adroitly balances exciting storylines, interesting characters, evocative description, good dialogue and wider insights. And right from the very start, there was something a little special about Sonchai. 


LATIN AMERICA

Death Going Down by María Angélica Bosco, tr: Lucy Greaves (Pushkin Vertigo, 2017)

More than sixty years after it was first published as La muerte baja en el ascensor (Death Takes the Elevator), this Emecé Prize-winning debut from the ‘Argentinean Agatha Christie’ is now available for English-speaking readers for the first time. 

Somewhat unusually for Latin American crime fiction, DEATH GOING DOWN leans strongly towards classic British murder mysteries in protagonist, tone, pacing, and atmosphere – with some local flourishes – rather than hardboiled detectives or social novels packed with police and political corruption. Inspector Ericourt is an older policeman who seems to work slowly and methodically but is often a few steps ahead of where he seems. Alongside his enthusiastic younger colleague Blasi, Ericourt delves into the death of a young woman in the elevator of an apartment block in a wealthier part of post-war Buenos Aires. 

A slim read that’s more absorbing that page-whirring; there are plenty of suspects, secrets, clues, and red herrings for fans of classic Golden Age mysteries to enjoy. More deaths follow, and secrets are poked at until Ericourt gathers the survivors together to re-enact the crime and unmask the killer (a familiar trope in Europe, unusual in Latin America). 

I enjoyed the insights Bosco gives readers into post-war Argentine life – that idea of how things were seen at the time, as opposed to historic mysteries set in those times but written by modern-day authors with the benefit of hindsight but a lack of firsthand knowledge. A good read, that brings an overlooked crime writer to English-speaking audiences.


OCEANIA

The Last Time We Spoke by Fiona Sussman (Allison & Busby, 2016)

This blend of literary fiction with crime fiction from a New Zealand doctor who grew up in Apartheid South Africa, has won multiple awards and is an absolute triumph. It’s a powerful, evocative novel that takes a ‘torn from the headlines’ violent crime and presses into the ongoing impact of that night on all involved, particularly a victim and a perpetrator. 

Carla Reid has a nice life as a farmer’s wife, living in a rural area a ways outside of New Zealand’s biggest city, and with a son cresting into adulthood. One night her world collides with that of Ben Toroa, an illiterate teen of indigenous descent caught up in gang life. A brutal home invasion tears both Carla and Ben from their axis. A violent act, devoured by the media, but what happens long after the headlines fade and public attention moves on?

THE LAST TIME WE SPOKE is the tale of Carla’s stuttering recovery and Ben growing into adulthood in prison. What do people do when their lives are broken, when events have torn away all their dreams and choices. Sussman has crafted a sublime story that burrows into some unspoken aspects of crime. This is a confronting book, but beautifully written. It’s provocative and harrowing, while also being hopeful. Packed with a heart-wrenchingly authentic array of contemporary ‘Kiwi’ characters, it’s a book that will give overseas readers insight into the darker side of New Zealand’s beautiful scenery and peaceful reputation. And is likely to linger long after the final page. 

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 writing events on three continents, and been a judge of the Ned Kelly Awards (Australia), McIvanney Prize (Scotland), and Ngaio Marsh Awards (New Zealand). You can heckle him on Twitter: @craigsisterson