20 January 2010

Death in the desert

A couple weeks ago, Gary Sankary wrote about A Carrion Death, a book he'd just read. He said he "loved it."

He wrote just after he got his Sony Reader and a library card from the Amery, Wisconsin library. I don't know if he read the book on his Reader or "borrowed" the book from Amery. Those are just coincidental facts I know.

Gary's recommendation sent me to the Northfield Public Library where I found a copy of A Carrion Death by Michael Stanley. The book is a murder mystery set in the capital of Botswana [capital city, left]. (Go ahead and click on that link to the Wikipedia page about Botswana or this link to the CIA World Factbook page on the country. The CIA has a much better map. You know you want to find out where it is and what it's like.)

Michael Stanley is actually two guys, a Michael and a Stanley. Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. Trollip lives part of the year (presumably the warmer part) in Minnesota and part of the year in South Africa where Sears lives.

The book is over 400 pages of darn good story telling. These guys work well together. I especially liked the numerous short little chapters that advanced the story and made it easy for me to read a few before sleep and pick up where I left off when I awoke.

The book revolves around Detective David "Kubu" Bengu of the Botswana Criminal Investigation Department. If you're expecting some kind of exotic Third World tale involving primitive sleuthing and technology, you'll be disappointed. Kubu, a huge man nicknamed "hippo" (in English), is a thorough, rational, thoughtful investigator. His forensic support team provides him with trace evidence identification, finger print comparisons, DNA analysis, and numerous other CSI-type services. He doesn't hike through the veld. He drives a department Land Rover. He doesn't ride a decrepit third class rail coach from HQ to the other end of the country, he flies. There is a peripheral character who shows up with mystical messages about what's going on, but he wouldn't be out of place in a seance in New Orleans or a fortune teller's front room in Queens.

The carrion death that opens the story of the complex mystery is the discovery of a murder victim's corpse, torn apart by hyenas at a wilderness water hole. Identifying features are missing, although the body is of a white man. Is it a wandering tourist? A European geologist? A gangster? No one knows. No one is reported missing at first. Detective Kubu goes to work even though his boss is a friend of one person who might be involved.

One thing I liked is that Kubu has a wife and parents and in-laws that he's involved with. He goes home after work (although not as soon as his wife would like). He and the Mrs. spend Sundays with his parents. He invites friends to dinner. He's not as overwhelmed and obsessed by the job as many of the stars of mystery novels.

Oh, yes, the mystery. As Kubu investigates, more people are found who are connected to the place and perhaps to the dead man. Then a couple more people are obviously murdered, and evidence connects them to the carrion death. And all this in a country whose geography is dominated by the Kalahari Desert and the Makgadikgadi salt flats (most of the people live near the rivers in the east and north of the country); a country that can't produce food, but has very profitable diamond mines. What begins to look like the cover up of a scheme to sell blood diamonds, becomes something insanely different.

And Michael and Stanley tell the story well. There's another Detective Kubu mystery in existence and a third on the way. I'll be keeping my eye out for them.

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