Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A Carrion Death by Michael Stanley

I consider myself old school when it comes to detective fiction, preferring classic hard-boiled authors and characters, like Raymond Chandler and his iconic Philip Marlowe, Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, and the triumvirate of Mickey D investigative creations, John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, Gregory McDonald’s Fletch and Ross MacDonald’s Lew Archer. As for Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels, I consider them soft-boiled. They’re okay, but reading them is like eating a candy bar when you’re starving: it tastes great, but afterward you’re unfulfilled.

I wasn’t expecting much from A Carrion Death. Where was the big city, the dirty alleyways, the littered streets, the crumbling pavement, the pervasive shadows? Death takes place in the Botswana area of Africa; the glaring sun, empty plains with killers more often of the four-legged kind. And what about the novel’s hero? Where’s the lone manly man with the turncoat gangster moll hanging from his muscular arm? Death’s Detective Kubu is zaftig—Kubu, the character’s accepted nickname, is actually Setswana for hippopotamus—with a loving wife, who wrestles with excuses to ignore her dietary constrictions rather than with thugs.

Boy, was I pleasantly surprised. Because of the odd differences, A Carrion Death is an enjoyable hard-boiled detective novel and then some.

Like every great whodunit, the novel opens with a dead body, but his one isn’t stabbed, strangled or shot, or rather, had it been, it is impossible to tell, as it’s been half-eaten by hyenas and other predators indigenous to Detective Kubu’s jurisdiction (Talk about evidence being tampered with!). So how does Kubu even know that this is nothing more than simply a victim of Africa’s natural order? Ah, there’s the first rub. What follows leads Kubu from Diamond Mines to tribal rituals; from college mates to the country’s most powerful and influential people; from wildlife watering holes to the seedy, dangerous ones of the human variety; Kubu’s dogged pursuit seemingly thwarted at every turn.

As with most hard-boiled novels, the solution to the crime is almost secondary to the characters, their interaction and pursuit of justice. Detective Kubu is a revelation; everything the aforementioned gumshoes are not, but no less a classic hard-boiled character nonetheless. A man “of not inconsiderable bulk,” as first described, he has a penchant for food and drink; a loving relationship with his wife and a teasing, playful one with his sister-in-law. At first glance, Kubu’s boss, Jacob Mabaku, is a stereotypical, interfering, pain-in-the-ass superior, more concerned with procedure than finding answers. His true nature, though, develops into a refreshingly complex individual. Other notables: Ian MacGregor, a Scotch transplant and pathologist of the Botswana police, who enjoys a good tipple and chasing the ladies; and Johannes “Bakkies (pickup truck)” Swanepoel, a South African detective sergeant, who shares a nickname based on his huge physique like Kubu with the exception that Bakkies “converted the food to muscle while he (Kubu) turned it to fat.”

SIDE NOTE: Although their name is used derogatorily as an insult to the overweight, hippopotami are predominantly not fat, but muscular. They actually sink in water and gallop on river bottoms. Hence their name which comes from the ancient Greek: hippos, meaning horse; and potamus, meaning river; i.e. river horse. Had their size been a result of fat, they would be floating. Also, hippopotami are hardly docile creatures. In fact, more people die from hippopotami attacks than any other creature in Africa.

Thus endeth the lesson. Now back to our regularly scheduled review…

A Carrion Death is the collaborative effort of two writers, Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, hence their pen name, Michael Stanley. Their union is seamless. Though they liberally sprinkle native languages throughout the novel, their usage does not bog down the pacing, instead enhancing the tale. Still, Messieurs Sears and Trollip provide a modest glossary, one I didn’t need to reference while enjoying the book. They also supply a listing of characters with brief bios and a map. These I did reference, not so much out of necessity as out of interest.

A Carrion Death gets four spiders. I am looking forward to detective Kubu’s next case. In fact, I’ve already gotten the book, The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu. Had I not read Death, the title of the follow-up alone would have had me salivating!

No comments: