Global publishing phenomena can strike the most unlikely people in the strangest places. That was certainly the case a decade ago for Zimbabwe native and Scottish medical law professor Alexander McCall Smith when inspiration struck him during a visit to Botswana. Much ink has been spilled in the intervening years about McCall Smith’s ensuing creation, No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency proprietor Precious Ramotswe, and her penchant for taking on the most mundane of mysteries. Much more scrutiny will follow when the HBO miniseries, directed by Anthony Minghella, who died last month, debuts this fall. What’s ignored in the midst of McCall Smith’s ascendance to literary superstardom, however, is how this charming and witty series, nine books strong with this week’s publication of “The Miracle at Speedy Motors” (Pantheon: 216 pp., $25), has opened up the floodgates for crime fiction based in Africa.
That continent has not been entirely neglected by mystery readers: James McClure’s Dagger Award-winning mysteries featuring the odd cop couple of Afrikaner Lt. Kramer and Zulu Capt. Zhodi explored South Africa in the thick of 1970s apartheid, while the first four thrillers by Robert Wilson -- now known for police procedurals set in Spain and Portugal -- mined the criminal depths of West African terrain. And when Henning Mankell wasn’t writing the now-complete cycle of Inspector Wallander tales, the Swedish writer used his adopted hometown of Mozambique as a backdrop for more literary endeavors such as “Eye of the Leopard” (New Press: 304 pp., $23.95) originally published in 1990 but only available in English now. But compared with the still-raging appetite for crime fiction set in Europe, Scandinavia and the Pacific, African mysteries rated rather low on the reader request scale.
McCall Smith’s success changed this for two major reasons. The bush-tea-drinking, advice-dispensing Ramotswe exudes a calm, sensible approach to life’s big and little problems; she also espouses a love so deep for her native country that it allows the reader to share her optimism for its ability to maintain tradition in the face of modernity. On the flip side, because the “No. 1 Ladies” novels pay more attention to mining the familiar, to decisions “that at the time seemed very minor matters, but that could change the whole shape of our lives,” it neglects more pressing themes of widespread poverty, famine and AIDS that have ravaged the continent. That wholesale avoidance -- a deliberate choice by McCall Smith -- leaves a gap aching to be filled, and two recent arrivals on the crime fiction scene do so admirably.
Assistant Superintendent David Bengu, the protagonist of Michael Stanley’s delightful debut “A Carrion Death” (Harper: 470 pp., $23.95) shares a number of traits with McCall Smith’s signature heroine. His nickname, “Kubu,” is Setswanan for “hippopotamus,” suggesting a traditional build confirmed by his penchant for wearing African shirts, size XXXL. His marriage to Joy is built upon the same practical foundations of love that bind Precious Ramotswe to her garage-owning husband, J.L.B. Maketoni. And like Precious, Kubu takes a warm-hearted approach to life’s incidentals -- especially if they happen to be accompanied by heaping plates of food.
But Stanley, the merged name of the South African writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, makes clear early on that Kubu will travel down darker and more ghastly paths than Precious ever does. But then, murder investigation is Kubu’s job, and the discovery of two bodies in the wild with almost all possible identification marks eliminated means that the job quickly involves sifting through a labyrinthine mosaic of diamond smuggling, family strife and generations of closely guarded secrets that the Kalahari Desert cannot contain anymore.
“A Carrion Death” gets much right: The plot twists are fair and well-placed, the Botswana setting has room to breathe and take shape as its own entity, and Stanley’s writing style is equal parts sprightly and grave. Perhaps there needn’t be so much concentration on Kubu’s home life, but when he lets his jovial nature recede and talks instead of how murder “never works out quite the way you expect,” it forces the reader to look alongside him for the complete picture -- one that should take shape over several series installments.
Botswana may allow for leisurely paced mysteries, but post-apartheid South Africa is changing too fast to accommodate a writer taking time to spin a narrative web. Deon Meyer’s thrillers, originally written in Afrikaans and stylishly translated by K.L. Seegers, well understand the need to maintain momentum: mixing and matching multiple viewpoints, switching off between characters and portraying his native country as one in a perpetual state of flux and angst as blacks and whites continue their awkward dance of integration.
Never is this more apparent than in “Devil’s Peak” (Little, Brown: 410 pp., $24.99), the alternating story of two men brought down by internal and external demons who roar their way back in contrasting fashion. Police Det. Benny Griessel, who is white, has ruined his marriage with persistent alcoholism as befitting crime fiction’s greatest clichés; Xhosa Thobela Mpayipheli is at a lower rung of the angst-ridden barrel, teeming with rage over the deaths of his wife and son. Their diametrically opposed redemptive paths -- one laden with reflection, another with revenge -- ring true in Meyer’s nimble hands, which bring the two together in the midst of violent vigilantism that plagues the country.
“Devil’s Peak” sets its rhythm at molto allegro and ends with vivace flourish, but the novel’s heft comes from the author’s great sense of empathy for his characters and for their often catastrophic flaws. Meyer has a character wonder “if we are being punished for the things we are going to do in the future,” a foreboding observation that sounds the first of many thoughtful grace notes amid the novel’s excellent structural pyrotechnics.
Sarah Weinman blogs about crime and mystery fiction www.sarahweinman.com. Dark Passages appears monthly at www.latimes.com/books.
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