Six Degrees of Separation from No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

I’ve had a short break from this meme, but I enjoy it so much that I have to join in again this January. Especially since it starts with the first book in a series which I initially enjoyed a lot. The premise is simple: create a book chain starting with a book set every month by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best, and see where it takes you in six quick rolls of the dice.

This month we start with Alexander McCall Smith‘s gentle detective fiction set in Botswana, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective AgencyI loved Mma Precious Ramotswe, with her womanly figure and straight-laced charm, her kindness and thoughtfulness, but also relentless pursuit of criminals. Besides, it was delightful to read about Africa in a more positive light for a change. After 4-5 books, however, I abandoned the series: it started to be a bit too similar and unchallenging for my taste.

Another series set in Botswana is much more to my taste. Michael Stanley‘s Detective Kubu series also features a cuddly, larger-than-life detective, with enormous empathy and family feeling. The view of Botswana is much darker, however, and the crimes are much more tragic: political corruption, illegal organ transplants, the dark side of traditional medicine, oppression of Bushmen and so much more. I have Dying to Live still patiently waiting for me on my TBR pile and I always look forward to a new one in the series.

If books dealing with political corruption are your thing, there is one above all others which perfectly captures the Cold War paranoia (and is, perhaps, once more topical): Richard Condon’s The Manchurian CandidateA sleeper agent controlled by the Russians is about to assassinate political figures one by one. This frightening concept has been given the movie treatment twice, in 1962 (starring Laurence Harvey and Frank Sinatra) and in 2004 (with Liev Schreiber and Denzel Washington), and has given rise to a political term describing a candidate running for office who publicly supports one group to win election, but once elected uses executive or legislative powers to assist an opposing group. I could say something at this point about Theresa May and Brexit, but I will desist!

Manchuria is a region in China that was invaded by the Japanese in the 1930s with horrific brutality. There aren’t many Japanese books depicting this gruesome period in their history, but Abe Kobo‘s harrowing (and possibly semi-autobiographical) novel Beasts Head for Home shows a Japanese man returning after the end of the war to this region where he grew up, witnessing the consequences of those atrocities and questioning what it means to be one nationality or another, and what one might call home, in a period of fluid borders.

Abe Kobo is best known for his enigmatic novel The Woman in the Dunes, which has also been adapted into a film directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara. I remember both the book and film as been hugely suffocating, like being buried alive in that relentless onslaught of sand.

 

 

Another enigmatic book which also makes me think of endless sand and of being buried alive is Albert Camus’ L’ÉtrangerThe main protagonist Meursault’s act of violence on the beach in relentless sunshine and his complete lack of remorse hurt me profoundly as a teenager, but each time I reread it, I found different nuances and depths to this story. It’s one of the defining books of the 20th century and explains human indifference and passivity.

 

But before we get too bleak, let’s end on a more cheerful note, as befits Mma Ramotswe. Another outsider and free spirit is the joyous Huckleberry Finn (Adventures of…) by Mark Twain. He resists all attempts to be ‘sivilised’ or kidnapped or restrained, and has amazing adventures in the process. Although we could and should argue that it is escaped slave Jim who is the true outsider in this story and Twain is not shy about pointing out the hypocrisy of a system that treats Huck and Jim so differently.

So from Botswana to the Mississippi, via Manchuria, Japan and Algeria. Where will your book chain take you?

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Death of the Mantis by Michael Stanley

DeathMantisIf you have become accustomed to the gentle mysteries and charming portrayal of Botswana in Alexander McCall Smith’s series featuring Mma Precious Ramotse, you will find this crime series less comfortable reading. Michael Stanley is the pen-name for the successful collaboration between Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, who are not from Botswana but have extensive experience of Southern Africa (one of them lives in Johannesburg). For an anthropologist, this novel is a dream: it not only has a very keen sense of place, but it also describes the conflict between the different ways of life of the ethnic groups in that country.

 

This is the third novel in a series featuring detective David ‘Kubu’ Bengu (Kubu is his nickname and means ‘Hippopotamus’, referring to his generous proportions), but it works equally well as a standalone novel or an introduction to the series. Kubu is an absolutely delightful character, a man caught between traditional and Western culture, with an equal love for his job, his parents, his wife and baby daughter, but also thirsting for truth and justice.

 

It starts out simply enough. A park ranger is found dead, with three Bushmen hovering near the body. Are they trying to help or did they commit murder? One local detective believes the latter, but Kubu is not so sure. Especially when he is asked to take on the case by his old school chum, also a Bushman who is now an advocate for the native rights of these people. The Bushmen or Khoisan – both names are used somewhat disparagingly for what is a diverse group of people –  used to roam freely in the Kalahari but are now being increasingly herded into reservations. The lack of evidence forces Kubu to free them, but then more murders take place, leading Kubu deeper into danger and forcing him to make difficult personal choices.

 

The Mantis, with its light brown colour and small proportions, is one of the animals most revered by the Bushmen of the Kalahari, and the double entendre of the title of this book is significant. While there are many deft humorous touches to the story, this is also a serious examination of societal issues and the consequences of modernisation. Yet these issues are addressed lightly, without preaching, in a thrilling and compelling story. I will certainly be reading more in this series and thank you to the book bloggers who have recommended it to me.

 

Sunrise in Botswana
Sunrise in Botswana (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

This was the final book (my second Africa entry) for my Global Reading challenge – Medium Level, hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise. Thank you to Kerrie for encouraging us to step out of our usual cultural comforts and for enabling me to discover so many new settings and authors this year!