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

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Death of the Mantis ($14.99), by Michael Stanley; Children of the Street ($15), by Kwei Quartey

Africa is a large continent, and it's hard for someone who doesn't know the countries to keep them straight. Many new authors (joining old-timers James McClure and Elsbeth Huxley) have been bringing us outstanding series set in several of the countries, and that should help us individuate them.

Let me pause for a second to say that country and culture are not synonymous. The national borders are artificial constructs, mainly determined by colonizing Europeans. There may be several tribes who occupy a country, some of whom have tribal boundaries that pass through more than one country. There are places that have kept some of the ways and governmental structures of the colonizing countries, even after the colonizers have gone, in a synthesis of European and tribal traditions. All this is recognized in some of the most innovative writing around today.

South Africa, Botswana, and Ghana are brought to life by Alexander McCall Smith, Malla Nunn, Jassy Mackenzie, Wessel Ebersohn, Michael Stanley, and Kwei Quartey. Suzanne Arruda and Henning Mankell (when he's not writing bleak mysteries set in Sweden) also have books set in Africa.

Michael Stanley's series is set in Botswana, and Kwei Quartey's in Ghana. Both authors deal with serious issues that affect these countries. In Stanley's case, it is the plight of the nomadic Bushman tribes, and in Quartey's it is the homeless children who live in poverty and without protection in the slums of Accra.

Death of the Mantis is the third in the series by authors Stanley Trollip and Michael Sears, writing under the pen name of Michael Stanley. Set in Botswana with a Batswana police detective, David "Kubu" -- which means hippopotamus, a reflection of his enormous girth -- Bengu, this series is not at all like McCall Smith's Precious Ramotswe books. Although it is by no means a blood-and-guts series, there are dead bodies, coroner's reports, and police detection.

This time Bengu is asked by a Bushman friend from childhood, someone he hasn't seen in a while, to help two Bushman hunters who have been arrested for the murder of a park ranger. Stanley does a good job describing how endangered the wandering Bushman people are, with development and the concept of private property threatening to take away their rights to roam the Kalahari Desert at will. As with the Aboriginal people of Australia, the Bushman people are able to travel in what to us appears to be a featureless wasteland, without gadgets or maps. They, too, have sacred spots and rituals handed down from one generation to another.

It almost doesn't matter what the murder mystery is because the compelling story is about the Bushman people and their struggle to survive.

Kwei Quartey's Children of the Street may be hard for some people to read. Authors are often told, don't kill children or animals. But the unvarnished truth is that children die in unacceptable numbers in parts of Africa, and a lot of them live in squalor.

Darko Dawson is a police detective who loves his job and his family. He doesn't like to play the political games necessary to be in the police force, and he has a temper when he sees injustice. It takes all his ingenuity to help the Accra police focus on the right people when children from the slum areas are murdered. Could it be part of a ritual? Or is it business as usual in an area of town where the biggest bullies usually win?

Quartey's mystery is a vehicle for him to bring to our attention a difficult problem facing many poor nations. Children are homeless, starving, on their own, and living in filth. He gives them a small voice in his moving book.

We probably don't want to hear what either Stanley or Quartey tells us. It's hard to imagine the inequality that exists so far away. Although their books are works of fiction, they are based on real issues. Both authors tell their stories in different but equally compelling ways. They are well worth reading.

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