Ali Karim is a Board Member of Bouchercon [The World Crime & Mystery Convention] and co-chaired programming for Bouchercon Raleigh, North Carolina in 2015. He is Assistant Editor of Shots eZine, British correspondent for The Rap Sheet and writes and reviews for many US magazines & Ezines.
Deadly Harvest is the fourth book in the Detective David “Kubu” Bengu police procedural series set in contemporary Botswana, but can be read as a standalone as Michael Stanley does not burden the reader with previous baggage. Like the recent wave [or tsunami] of Nordic / Scandinavian crime thrillers, Deadly Harvest informs the reader of the context and backdrop to the society that the detectives operate within, as much as it entertains the reader.
Kubu is a gentle giant of a man; Assistant Superintendent in the Botswana Criminal Investigation Department [CID], happily married to his wife Joy, they live with their young daughter Tumi. Kubu and his colleagues keep the peace in a land trying to find its place in a fast changing world. Kubu sees the fissures between the traditional rural economy being eaten into by new technology and the ‘change’ that is transforming the land, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.
Internet cafes sit door-to-door with the funeral parlors [that have become a growth industry] due to the toll that HIV / AIDS has brought to the land. The trickle-down wealth from the diamond mines, corruption, and poverty make the path jagged for Kubu and his colleagues to traverse.
Modern police technology is in direct conflict with traditional tribal superstition and the dark-side of human nature. The practice of Witch-Doctors and their ritual potions such as the so-called ‘Muti’ which can contain human organs has to be confronted in the modern world. Kubu and his family observe the challenges brought on by change in his country personally, as they adopt their daughter’s HIV+ school friend rendered an orphan due to AIDS that took her family.
The HIV disease is an epidemic in the land, but the recent advances in retro-viral medicine has been a life-saver to those who can afford the treatment. For those who can’t, there is always the ‘Muti’ from the Witch-Doctors that can cure everything from emphysema, sexual prowess to bestowing power to those who crave it.
The novel opens disturbingly with two unrelated incidents each detailing the kidnap of two schoolgirls from two different places; each leaving a vacuum within the families they left behind. The local police struggle to find the perpetrators from a combination of a lack of will, as well as a lack of resource.
The aftermath of both abductions are rendered heart-wrenching as the reader learns to understand the anguish that remains in the wake of these crimes, especially to Mr Witness Maleng, father of vanished schoolgirl Tombi Maleng who was last seen getting into a car willingly on the way home from school. With Tombi gone, Witness is now all alone, his wife dead from AIDS, so he resorts to smoking Marijuana and drinking ‘Shake-Shake’ Beer at BIG MAMA KNOWS ALL drinking den. In his fevered mind Maleng curses the police for their lack of results in finding his daughter, so instead he goes to the local witch doctor for guidance as to how he can find his daughters abductor / killer.
Months later Detective Kubu while chomping his biscuits and singing along to the Barber of Seville watches the politicians batting the upcoming elections with disdain and cynicism. Kubu is especially troubled by the egotistical upstart ‘Bill’ Marumo [of the Freedom Party] who is challenging the ruling political regime of the BDP. His overconfidence troubles Kubu. Change comes to Kubu when his department is assigned their first female Detective Samantha Khama.
She soon starts rooting in what they term the ‘cold case file’, which includes the case of the two missing schoolgirls. In her youth Khama too lost a school friend, who was never discovered, despite rumors of sexual slavery and ‘Muti’ rituals. Perhaps Kharma’s alacrity in reopening the cold case of the missing girls has to do with why she joined the police, and perhaps her chance for personal retribution.
Kubu on the other hand is involved in protecting the political schemer, and opposition leader ’Bill’ Marumo. It seems Marumo’s life is threatened when someone hammers a dog’s head to his door and the warning ‘you’re next’, smeared by a finger dipped in the dead canine’s blood. Kubu cynically wonders if the scheming Marumo killed the dog himself for publicity.
The Botswana police are instructed to ensure that no trouble erupts during the election campaign as tensions between the ruling BDP Party and Marumo’s Freedom Party are at an all time high. To add to the broth [or ‘pap’ as the Botswana people call maize porridge], it seems the sick and elderly Tebogo Gobey [Deputy Commissioner of the Botswana Police] is retiring. Kubu’s boss Jacob Mabaku, the Director of the Botswana CID should be his natural successor, but Gobey’s corrupt nephew Joshua, head of the Diamond-Mine Police has other ideas.
The pace ratchets up when Marumo wins the local election, but is later found dead outside his house from a frenzied knife attack. Kubu and his Boss Jacob Mabaku are instructed to drop everything and pump all departmental resources [including CSI-type forensics] into finding who killed the Politician ‘Bill’ Marumo.
The divergent plot strands slowly start to weave together, though for the reader, it is hard to see where the joins are, such is the narrative talent of the writers, Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, who use the name Michael Stanley.
With short and surgically edited chapters, like bush-meat the narrative is devoid of any fat, combing a twisting plot striated with social commentary upon which this dark tale is hung. Each chapter is aptly opened with a line from Shakespeare’s Macbeth as this complex novel is a heady brew of tribal superstitions at conflict with the change of the modern world, and an insight into the darkest of human motivations that are as universal, say in Baltimore, as they are in Botswana.
The authors provide the reader not only a short listing of the character names and their context at the start; but also a concise glossary at the end which are not only useful, but also informative for the reader who wants to learn the context and pronunciation of the cast and their colloquialisms.
At times this novel is frightening in terms of feeling lost in a dangerous and unforgiving region [filled with ritual and superstition] but balanced by a light sense of humor that keeps this tale from veering into dry melodrama. The sparse but comprehensive delineation of the vast array of characters is masterfully done, as is the authenticity of the backdrop, and its detail. Special mention must be made of minor character Big Mama, the owner of “BIG MAMA KNOWS ALL” Bar and Lounge [aka ‘Shebeen’] as she, like her drinking parlor adds a vivid streak over the proceedings.
It was Anglo-Irish Politician Edmund Burke who once said that ‘for evil to thrive, all it takes is for good men to do nothing’. David ‘Kubu’ Bengu is a example of one of Burke’s good men, for he, with help from his colleagues uncovers the truth behind not only the missing school girls, the death of the Politician, and finally uncovers who is referred to as ‘the man who is invisible’, the malevolent being at the centre of the Shakespearian tragedy that is Deadly Harvest.
This makes Deadly Harvest into one of the finest crime thrillers of 2013, but do not let the African location put you off. Instead, embrace it as once you open its covers, you’ll hear the voice of the missing American school-girl Dorothy utter ‘we’re not in Kansas anymore’
Editor’s Note : If this engaging thriller has moistened your appetite for more adventures on what we used to term the ‘dark continent’, then perhaps it’s time to explore the three proceeding novels by the Michael Stanley duo - A Carrion Death, The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu [US title], A Deadly Trade [Overseas title] and Death of the Mantis. The more adventurous should explore the African thrillers of Roger Smith, or Deon Meyer or for those of less of a noirish bent, then Alexander ‘Sandy’ McCall Smith’s gentler mysteries are recommended.