This is Kwei Quartey’s fourth crime novel; they all feature detective Darko Dawson and are set in Ghana. As a detective fiction aficionado and an African of sorts myself (with just the first six years of my life spent in Uganda and Kenya) I am always on the lookout for crime novels from Sub-Saharan Africa; but apart from excellent South African ones, they are few. So, finding the series by Quartey was a triumph, for all four of his Dawsons to date are very good, and they get better every time. The plots are well-constructed, the characters very real, and — one of the series’ best features — they present extremely interesting insights into modern life in Ghana. What is especially enlightening is the scope — each one so far has had a different setting: Wife of the Gods about traditional beliefs in a small village the Volta region in the South-East; Children of the Street, life in the slums and the very rich districts of the capital, Accra; Murder at Cape Three Points, at an oil rig off the South-West coast; and the book reviewed, about open-cast gold mining in the Western, Ashanti region. Every time, the traditions and beliefs, the buildings, the clothing, the food are all carefully described, and I now know more about Ghana than very many other countries.
Quartey writes about Ghanaians and foreigners with equal objectivity. His first two ‘Dawsons’ feature locals only, the next two show some of the exploitation by people from overseas. The oil rigs are the result of Western business intrusions; the gold mines are almost exclusively concerns of Chinese interests, and some of the suspects in this case are Chinese — legal and illegal residents. Other possibles on Dawson’s list this time are Ashanti villagers who sacrifice the ancestral farms for better earnings (life otherwise being hand-to-mouth), and decidedly shady if not corrupt members of the local police. Meanwhile, Dawson has to cope with moving his job and his family to this new centre and organizing an office which is in complete chaos. He is no saint but his honesty stands out, as does his methodical approach to sifting through the list of suspects and the many clues. Quartey can be faulted, in this novel as in previous ones, by providing his leading detective with a chance flash of insight from a remark, on this occasion by both his young sons; but this is a common fault among writers. Unusual among fictional detectives are his good relationships with his immediate family and his (almost) complete non-dependence on alcohol or other drugs.
According to a reviewer (of another author) in The New York Times Book Review, “Ever since the days of Agatha Christie, the great divide in the British detective story has been between plot and character,” implying that most or all British crime writers since Christie have not properly combined both. I disagree: she died 40 years ago, and given say five minutes I could produce a long list as a strong counterargument. My point here, however, is that Kwei Quartey does pay equal and suficient attention to both plot and character, and combines them with a third element, one that for me personally is almost essential: a strong sense of place. After reading — as a single example — two books by Jim Kelly, I feel almost at home in the part of Norfolk along the coast eastwards from King’s Lynn: if I ever go there I will recognize the sounds, the smells, the views. And this is true of Quartey’s Ghana also.
Readers who may be put off by too many strange names and phrases and foodstuffs in unknown languages can be reassured: Quartey provides what used to be traditional — a list of characters, at the front — and also a glossary of quoted words in three of the languages of Ghana. They will find a narrative which moves briskly along, a little excitement, and a well-devised set of clues. Kwei Quartey is a doctor in California: I very much look forward to his next, Death by His Grace, about religious (mal)practices in Accra, and hope he can find time away from the cares of his practice for more trips back home to Ghana and for writing!
Simon Tolkien, The King of Diamonds, New York: Dunne, 2011
and Orders from Berlin, New York: Dunne, 2012.
I was—from a literary viewpoint— weaned on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which is as it happens the same age as myself: I was born and it was published in 1937. Nine years later I found myself in a boarding school ‘preparatory’ school. This was no Dotheboys Hall with the egregious Wackford Squeers (see http://www.historyhome.co.uk/readings/dotheboy.htm); nor—not until I graduated to the upper school at age ten—was it another Rugby School with an equally egregious Flashman (see https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1480/1480-h/1480-h.htm). No, this was a gentle introduction to the British boarding school of the immediate postwar years (not as I found it in the ‘main school’ a few years later; and we were read to at every bedtime: for as long as it lasted, The Hobbit. Thereafter I was a Tolkien fan, and read the three Ring books very avidly. In so doing, I learned a great deal about style, cf.:
“J.R.R. Tolkien’s writing style can be categorized as elegant, unique, graceful, and old-fashioned. Tolkien excelled in showing his imagination in great detail, but didn’t like using fancy vocabulary.” https://jrrtolkien-authorproject.weebly.com/themes–writing-style.html” and
“J.R.R. Tolkien’s writing style is not only something to be admired for its intrinsic literary quality. It is valuable because it gives a certain quality to the stories: it makes them believable. This is not to be found in the rich and carefully planned action, nor in the descriptive parts. …So much has been said about Tolkien’s writing style and what makes his books so great. We won’t go now into such literary depths, but explore the very simple truth. There is more to his writing (hinting here at The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings) than genius storytelling and well crafted beauty, and it’s what makes it believable. It’s the historical feel attached to it…. http://www.scififantasynetwork.com/jrr-tolkiens-writing-credibility-the-one-trait-that-makes-it-all-believable/
(When I saw Peter Jackson’s movies, however, I was disgusted: they may re-tell the Ring and (in part only) the Hobbit stories faithfully, but they distort the style and, with their explosions and exaggerations, make them crude imitations of Hollywood thrillers.
So, when I saw that his grandson, Simon M.R. Tolkien, had published a crime trilogy, I rushed to my library web-page to order them. Alas, “The Inheritance” was not available. But The King of Diamonds and Orders from Berlin were. The former is indeed, as is described on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simon_Tolkien and https://www.simontolkien.com/, “a naturally gifted storyteller with a … unique perception into the darker side of human nature,” a writer of a “a gripping and nuanced thriller laced with historical details [and] treachery,” in a style that is a “suspenseful blend that has been called “half Christie and half Grisham.” This is all true but although he comes close to his grandfather in plot and characterization, the style is very flat, sometimes humdrum. If readers do not mind this, I recommend the two books: if they can overlook the style, they will enjoy the stories.
Penney, Louise. All the Devils Are Here. 2020.
This is the 16th novel in the Chief Inspector Gamache series, and I have read all so far. In this one, EP outdoes herself — both in the merits and in the disadvantages of her crime novels. Two disadvantages first. (1) Where other writers about France (and this one is set in Paris) show off their knowledge of wines (“They drank a Chateauneuf-du-roi 1997, savouring its hints of rare citrus and horse sweat”) LP includes plenty of occasions with characters eating, but eschews the liquids and revels in the quality of the foods. Nobody just eats ice-cream: theirs is a walnut ice-cream with after-tastes of truffles. Nobody has a simple breakfast: they eat their eggs with maple-cured bacon (in Paris!). And so on. And (2) what annoys and annoyed me, her style. Most of her sentences do have a verb, but they finish abruptly and the adverbs and/or adjectives are added. After full stops / periods. Frequently. Indeed, almost always. Often carefully chosen to surprise. To shock. Or to amuse. — Given the great intricacy of the plot, this was for me distracting! Exasperating! But the story is excellent. It begins with a dead body and a near-fatal hit-and-run, and involves the wives and children of Armand Gamache and his former (in Montréal) lieutenant Jean-Guy Belvoir and very highly-placed members both of the Paris Police and one multi-tentacled company. In addition, Gamache’s godfather, the victim of the hit-and-run, is a billionaire who was, until his ‘accident,’ behaving very out-of-character; every named person in industry and the police is a suspect, and so is Gamache’s son. The novel, not as long as it appears because EP’s paragraphs are so very short that there is much blank space on every page, wove its way through these complications and towards the end became so exciting that I forgot all my petty annoyances and enjoyed it immensely. Definitely an A+!