Welcome to Murder by the Book's blog about what we've read recently. You can find our website at www.mbtb.com.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Wife of the Gods, by Kwei Quartey, c2009 ($15)

Pardon me while I decry the abundance of comparisons of mystery books set in Africa to Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. I especially think it's misleading when the book's tone may be similar but the subject matter and intensity is radically different. (Having said that, I must admit to having recently used that comparison for my review of The Second Death of Good Luck Tinubu!)

Kwei Quartey's wonderful Wife of the Gods has a similar tone; that is, there is an underlying cultural civility expressed when people meet each other. Whether it is "Dumela, Mma" or "Woizo, woizo," as in this book set in Ghana, there is a shared ritual politeness and propriety that belies the very different nature of the books. Wife of the Gods is NOT The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, not by a long shot.

Detective Inspector Darko Dawson loves his family and enjoys his job in the big city of Accra. There was tragedy in his young life when his brother was injured in an accident and his mother disappeared. The grown-up Darko has anger management issues and an intolerance for the Ghanian equivalent of snake-oil salesmen, people who traffic in superstitions and ritualistic fetishism. He also enjoys a toke of the weed every so often, weed obtained from a man whom Darko arrested once upon a time. Darko is a contradictory mix of principles, but he vehemently adheres to those principles.

Darko is sent on a case to the village of Ketanu, a place with which he is familiar from his youth. Long ago he accompanied his mother and brother on a visit to his mother's sister, Osewa, who lives there, and he remembers Osewa fondly. However, Darko's mother disappeared after a visit to Osewa and was never found. It is with joy and trepidation, therefore, that Darko re-enters Ketanu.

A young woman, Gladys, has been found murdered, lying in a plantain grove. She was not just any young woman. She was the hope of Ketanu, a young medical student who was trying to stem the tide of AIDS and to save women bound into virtual slavery by an old-time system of oblation to the village fetish priest. Darko's own dander rises when he meets the drunken, abusive priest as part of his investigation. The village healer fares no better under Darko's glare when he learns the healer was one of the last people to see Gladys alive. Then there's the young infatuated man who allegedly stalked Gladys and the alleged village witch, who happens to be Gladys' aunt. What about Gladys' boss, a seemingly shifty person whom Darko senses is lying. And how does he sense the boss is lying? He has a mild form of synesthesia, a mixing up of the senses.

Synesthesia has been used, in my opinion, to good effect in The Fallen by T. Jefferson Parker and Still Waters by Nigel McCrery. In The Fallen, the hero sees colors and shapes when people talk. In Still Waters, the unfortunate hero tastes what people sound like. In this book, Darko feels the sound of voices. His aunt, for example, is dark velvet. This is an understated and clever addition to Darko's complex character.

Wife of the Gods deals with some very serious issues in a very serious manner. There was more violence than I had expected at first, lulled as I was initially by the "No. 1 Ladies" demeanor. And there's a whopper of a plotline resolution at the end that had me wincing. The best parts are the cultural perspective by a Ghanian writer who is now a doctor in the U.S., and Quartey's willingness to give us a flawed but principled hero.

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