Book Review: Dying to Live

Dying to Live, by Michael Stanley, is the third book in the authors’ Detective Kubu series to be published by Orenda (you may read my reviews of the first two here and here). As with the previous instalments the imagery takes the reader into the heat and heart of Botswana where the books are set. Kubu masters his volatility better than before and less is made of his girth, although he continues to enjoy good food. His character, and that of his colleagues, add interest and depth but their varying foibles do not distract from the twists and turns in the plot. Witch doctor’s and their muti – alternative medicines that require belief to have any effect – continue to play a significant role.

The story opens with the death of a Bushman in a remote region of the country. He was a very old man who had been of interest to various foreigners due to his longevity. A prominent witch doctor is then reported missing in the town of Gaborone. There is nothing to link the two investigations until the names of the foreigners are found in the witch doctor’s appointments book.

Many in the police force despise the Bushmen and witch doctor’s, although the latter are still widely feared. The investigations are not therefore approached with much enthusiasm, deaths of such people regarded as of no great loss. When a body is stolen from a morgue it is assumed the parts were wanted for muti. Kubu is unconvinced as that of a young girl, which would have been considered more valuable by practitioners of such dark hocus pocus, is left untouched.

With so many aspects of the two cases remaining shrouded in secrecy by those potentially involved, Kubu is determined to get to the bottom of whatever is going on. What he uncovers goes beyond Botswana, and officials from abroad are not always willing to trust the integrity of their African counterparts.

The integrity of all concerned is key. Backhanders are common and the desire for health and wealth, whatever the cost to others, widespread. When Kubu’s daughter, Nono, reacts against her HIV medication and becomes seriously ill even his staunch belief in scientifically proven medication over muti is tested.

The pace feels gentle despite the dark events unfolding but reader engagement is retained throughout. This was a complex but enjoyable read; my favourite Kubu adventure thus far.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher.

This post is a stop on the Dying to Live Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Dying to Live is published by Orenda Books.

Book Review: A Death in the Family

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A Death in the Family, by Michael Stanley, is the fifth in the authors’ Detective Kubu series and the second to be published by Orenda Books. In this instalment, Detective David ‘Kubu’ Bengu must deal with being sidelined by his team when his frail and elderly father is murdered and he is banned from becoming involved as this would risk compromising the investigation. Despite understanding the reasoning for his exclusion Kubu struggles to stay away, frequently losing his temper with colleagues trying to do their jobs. It is only when he is given another case to run, a supposed suicide he believes may be murder, that he is able to add his inimitable flashes of inspiration.

Kubu is a seasoned and respected police detective despite his volatility. His boss is also prone to short tempered eruptions so perhaps this is a trait of the culture, the sense of entitlement the men carry and struggle to contain. Other less than desirable aspects of the rapid changes the Motswana are forced to deal with include the struggle women face to be accorded equal rights. A female detective shows great restraint when suspects attempt to demean her. Domestic violence is rife and often ignored.

The story opens with Kubu being woken in the night and informed of the attack on his father. He rushes to his mother’s side and brings her to his home. She refuses to stay for more than a few days as she has a huge funeral to organise. The way her friends and neighbours come together to assist with this is a welcome positive aspect of the traditional culture. Kubu is expected to pay but the women support each other and willingly share the workload.

Simmering in the background is mention of a mining contract in Shoshong, a town close to the former home of Kubu’s ancestors. The young men of the area need jobs. The elders have seen mining companies renege on promises in the past to the detriment of locals. The clash between young and old erupts into violence. Kubu suspects corrupt dealings between politicians and the Chinese mining company wishing to expand. He is offered evidence supporting his suspicions but it has been illegally obtained.

Kubu’s vast girth and love of food are used to add humour. I admit to feeling some discomfort at this trope. I did though enjoy his short trip to New York, especially the contrasts between Botswana and America. I wonder at the size the authors envisage Kubu given that he struggled to fit through some American doors.

The writing style is gentle and the pace slow to get going but once hooked I finished the book in a sitting. There were few surprises in the denouement but it tied up the many threads in a satisfying way.

An atmospheric police procedural uncovering the shadows that lurk beneath an unrelenting African sun. Botswana is presented with much sympathy but also honesty. This is a country in transition whose resources have long been pillaged by foreigners. The addition of another rapidly developing nation, China, trying to take without giving adds an interesting dimension to a congenial read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher.

This review is a stop on the ‘A Death in the Family’ Blog Tour. Do check out the other posts, listed below.

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‘A Death in the Family’ is published by Orenda Books and is available to buy now.

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Writing Across Cultures – Guest Post by Michael Stanley

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Today I welcome to my blog the authors of ‘Deadly Harvest’, a crime fiction novel set in Botswana which I review here. I enjoyed reading this book but noted in my review that I felt a little discomfort at two white men creating what seemed to me to be stereotypical, uneducated black Africans. I am therefore delighted that, in this guest post, the authors address this issue in such a cogent way.

I travelled around southern Africa, although not Botswana, many years ago and have never forgotten the contrast between the poverty in which too many of the indigenous people lived and the breathtaking beauty of the place. ‘Deadly Harvest’ brings to life many of the challenges that must be faced in modernising such a country whilst providing a darkly entertaining and compelling read.  

 

Michael Stanley is the pseudonym for the writing partnership of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. We write police procedurals set in Botswana with a Black detective from the Criminal Investigation Department as our main character. A question we’re sometimes asked is: “How can two White guys from South Africa write a Black protagonist from Botswana?”

This is an intriguing question that has different pieces to the answer. First, why Botswana? We picked Botswana as the setting for our first book mainly because that’s where we had the idea for our first mystery, and our opening scene worked better there than anywhere else. We also knew the country well and liked to visit it a lot.

Second, why a Black detective? The answer here is a bit more complicated. Once we’d written the open scene where the murder is discovered, we needed a policeman to conduct the official investigation. So we dispatched Assistant Superintendent David Bengu from the CID in Gaborone to drive into the Kalahari where the body had been found. Since he’s a detective in Botswana, he’d be Black. (We actually never entertained the idea that he’d be White.)

This is why we have a Black detective, but it doesn’t, of course, answer the question “How can anyone successfully write about someone who is culturally different?”

Many authors have protagonists who are substantially different from themselves. Men have women protagonists; women have men protagonists; English have Russian protagonists; Americans have English protagonists, and so on. So how do they do it?

First, it’s important to know the different culture as well as you can. We’ve visited Botswana many times and have read a lot about the country and its history. Michael worked with a company that had extensive involvement in Botswana. Having been born and raised in South Africa gives us a feel for southern African Black culture in a broad sense. Certainly diverse Black groups have differences, but overall there are more similarities. For example, all have a great respect for their elders; there are strong extended families; communities are very supportive; there is still a belief in the powers of witch doctors; and colonization has brought Western ways to the region, often sitting uncomfortably with the traditional cultures. For authenticity, a Motswana protagonist would need to conform reasonably closely to these behaviours, thought patterns, and beliefs. Part of the enjoyment for us was learning much more about the culture than we’d known before we started working on the books.

Second, on a day-to- day basis, different cultures do things differently. For example, when Batswana (people from Botswana) shake hands or give or take something, they extend their right hand and touch their right arm with their left hand. It’s a sign of respect. Similarly, it is common to address someone as “Rra” (“Sir” or “Mr.”) or “Mma” (Ma’am” or “Mrs.”). A Motswana protagonist would do these things naturally in the correct context.

Third, a story takes place within a broader cultural context, such as the politics of the country, the structure of the government and police department, and the major events of the past decade or two. Your characters need to know these things because they would pop into conversation when appropriate. So you need to know them too. This typically comes from reading, travelling in the country, and talking to locals.

Ultimately it is readers who will pass judgement on whether a writer has done a good job of developing the character. Our Western readers enjoy our depiction of Botswana and its culture. Perhaps more importantly, our books have been well received in Botswana itself, with the latest one even being used as a theme at an annual cultural festival held in the town where we set much of the action. We were delighted by that!

This post is a stop on the Deadly Harvest Blog Tour. Do check out the other posts, detailed below.

Deadly Harvest Blog tour    Deadly Harvest A/W.indd

Deadly Harvest is published by Orenda Books and is available to buy now.

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Book Review: Deadly Harvest

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Deadly Harvest, by Michael Stanley, is a crime thriller set in Botswana, a country that is modernising yet struggling to shake off the superstitions and prejudices of its traditional past. The story takes the reader to the heart of this struggle. Young girls are going missing, vanishing in broad daylight close to their homes. They leave no trace. The concern is that they are being taken for their body parts, believed by many to enhance the strength of potions known as muti which are created by witch doctors. Little can be proved as no bodies have been found.

This is the fourth adventure in the Detective Kubu series, and the first to be released in the UK by Orenda Books. Kubu is joined here by a new recruit, Detective Samantha Khama. Khama is a feisty if somewhat impetuous addition to the force. She is determined to prove her worth and be treated as equal to her male colleagues, many of whom still believe that a woman’s place is in the home.

Against the advice of her superiors, Khama has requested that she be allowed to reopen the cases of the missing girls, closed because no new leads could be found. Kubu meanwhile is sent to interview an upcoming politician, Bill Marumo, who has discovered a severed dogs head left outside his home and claims he is being threatened by his political opponents. Kubu suspects this may be a publicity stunt but the man’s public profile requires that the police be seen to act.

The investigations collide when there is a murder. Soon after another person is reported missing. As Kubu and Khama try to piece together what few clues they have new information comes to light. Their source demands anonymity, to protect his reputation and for fear of a witch doctor’s revenge. Kubu must decide if he is willing to risk his own career and that of a colleague to seek justice.

As with any system of belief, the witch doctors trade on hope and fear. They have their costumes and their rituals to ensure they appear apart from mere men. Their followers are willing to pay a high cost when promised personal gain.

The dramatic denouement demonstrates how difficult it can be to overcome ingrained beliefs. Even the most rational can waver when what is before their eyes is difficult to process and explain.

The writing is a wonderful mix of colourful imagery and brooding undercurrents. Kubu provides humour but also a depth of character with the obvious pleasure he takes in his family, his concerns for his aging parents, his immense love of food, and the intuition he brings to the case. I felt a little discomfort at two white men creating what seemed to be stereotypical, uneducated black africans, but the authors have lived in their setting. I did not question their ability to create females so perhaps am being overly sensitive on this score.

It is always good to explore a new country through fiction and I enjoyed my introduction to Botswana. This is a darkly entertaining and compelling work of crime fiction. A fine addition to the Orenda stable of books.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Orenda Books.