Top-drawer detective fiction is composed in equal parts of plot, character and an interesting setting evoked in such a way that it, too, becomes a narrative presence. It's a major plus if the prose and dialogue are sufficiently fluent and realistic that the discerning reader can settle into the entertainment without the nagging suspicion that they've gone slumming.
Kwei Quartey's first novel -- "Wife of the Gods: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery" -- has all those qualities in abundance. It's an absolute gem of a first novel and the sort of book that will delight not only hard-core mystery fans, but also those who visit the genre only casually in search of an occasional literary entertainment.
The novel's genesis is, in its own way, one of those only-in-L.A. stories. Quartey, a physician who lives in Pasadena and practices in Montebello, rises early to write before seeing patients. (If "Wife of the Gods" gets the attention it merits, one suspects those patients may shortly find morning appointments harder to get.) The author is the son of an African American mother and Ghanaian father and was born and raised in his father's country, where both parents were university lecturers. After his father's death from cancer, Quartey -- then a student activist -- was briefly jailed for sedition after being caught putting up posters attacking the country's military government. After his release, his mother moved the family to New York.
The author didn't actually return to Ghana until last year, which makes his entirely convincing use of that dynamic West African nation as this novel's setting all the more remarkable. As with all good mysteries, there's a compelling sleuth at the center of the plot, in this case the immensely likable, if far from perfect, Inspector Darko Dawson of Ghana's Criminal Investigations Department. Darko -- who is based in Accra, the country's capital -- is a keen and dogged detective with sometimes severe anger management problems and an abiding disrespect for regulations and higher authorities. Though he has an eye for female beauty, he is the lovingly faithful husband of Christine, a primary school teacher, and doting father of 6-year-old Hosiah, who is growing up under the shadow of a congenital heart defect. His parents' occupations make them members of Ghana's middle class, but both are desperately anxious over whether they'll ever be able to save enough money to pay for the corrective cardiac surgery their son requires.
Unlike most urban African men, Darko has no taste for alcohol; a soft-drink version of Guinness is his drink of choice and his vice is marijuana, which he obtains by periodically rousting a petty thief and dealer, whom he arrested some years before. Though he abhors the beatings his colleagues resort to as an investigative technique, Darko has a propensity for his own rough justice, which he's quick to dispense in cases involving the abuse of women or children. (Ghanaian policemen are unarmed, but Darko carries a cricket bat in the trunk of his car.) That tendency, along with a complete disregard for the political connections of those he encounters in the course of his investigations, is the source of a good deal of trouble.
In "Wife of the Gods," a beautiful young medical student doing volunteer work for an anti-AIDS program deep in the country's interior is found dead alongside a forest path. There are no obvious signs of foul play, nor of assault or robbery, but the local police inspector's suspicions quickly fall on the rather hapless ne'er-do-well son of a poor local family, who'd been seen speaking with the woman before she entered the forest. (The victim's own family -- she's a local product -- is the area's entrepreneurial success story.)
The well-connected health official for whom the dead young woman was working isn't satisfied with the quality of the police work, however, and uses his pull to have a senior inspector dispatched from Accra. Darko is the obvious choice since his mother came from the region where the crime occurred; he speaks the local language and has an aunt living in the village. For him, the journey back to a place he visited as a child is a painful reminder of his life's enduring torment: Years before, shortly after Darko's only brother was left a paraplegic after being struck by a car, the detective's distraught mother disappeared while on a visit to her sister.
Despite the best efforts of police, no trace of her ever was found. Darko and his brother were left in the care of their distant and ineffectual father, though the inspector sent to investigate the mother's disappearance awakened the boy's desire to become a police officer and has since become Darko's surrogate parent and trusted confidant.
With Darko on the case, an autopsy quickly reveals the dead medical student was skillfully strangled, and the detective's investigative net soon is cast over an array of suspects overlooked by the local authorities, including the powerful local fetish priest. Traditional Ghanaians are polytheists, and the priests tend shrines containing one or more sacred effigies. People convinced they've offended the gods or who believe they've been cursed through witchcraft will sometimes offer a female child to the priest as an expiating gift. When these "wives of the gods" reach puberty, they're forced to become concubines and caretakers of the shrine's priest. The murdered woman had been locked in a struggle with the loathsome local priest over the abuse of his "wives," and had hoped to persuade at least some of them to leave the shrine. (When one of them finally does -- with Darko's assistance -- suffice to say that her parting act fulfills the most elemental feminist fantasy of revenge.)
"Wife of the Gods" is not simply an extraordinarily well-crafted mystery; it's also an extremely well-structured and deftly written novel. By the time this beautifully paced and deeply satisfying narrative reaches its dramatic and unexpected conclusion, Darko will have resolved not only the mystery of the medical student's death, but also the traumatic personal enigma of his mother's disappearance. Quartey has a genuine facility for realistic dialogue -- key exchanges between Darko and his wife and with a village herbalist and believer in witchcraft fairly crackle -- and a gift for creating memorable secondary characters with which this book fairly teems.
For someone so long absent from Africa, the author also has a remarkable ability to credibly evoke the simultaneity of the modern and deeply traditional worlds in which so many of that continent's people coexist.
"Wife of the Gods" undoubtedly will be compared with Alexander McCall Smith's phenomenally successful "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" series, but Quartey's debut is -- to this reader, at least -- a far richer and more sophisticated experience. The author is working on a second novel and, if it lives up to this one's promise, mystery fans have an important new voice to savor.