2013, 320 p.
I was standing in a Nairobi bookshop with my son. “Show me a best-selling Kenyan book” I said, and he handed me this one, all wrapped up in clear cellophane as Kenyan books tend to be. It’s the debut novel of Richard Crompton, a former BBC journalist and producer who has lived in East Africa for several years. I think that you can tell his BBC credentials in the writing of this book: he is hoping to create a series of books and I can just see this one as a three-part BBC series in the future.
Mollel is a Masaai policeman based in Nairobi, which immediately marks him out as an outsider. Masaai’s as a rule, do not seek careers in the police force, and Mollel takes no part in the Kikuyu-Luo rivalry that is implicit in Kenyan politics today. He has his own tragedies, and he has only just returned to the force after a lengthy period of leave. The case which opens the book involves a prostitute who has suffered a violent recent genital mutilation. The trail leads to a powerful evangelical church minister, dodgy adoption practices and corruption at the highest levels.
But for me the real appeal of this book is the setting of Nairobi itself. The action takes place in the days leading up to the 2007 election which led to an estimated 1300 deaths and widespread internal displacement as people fled their homes to what they perceived as safer regions where their own tribal group is more numerous. In fact, the refugee camps of these internally displaced Kenyans still exist, seven years later. The action is sited in actual places ( I’ve been to them!) and he captures well the sense of shock as things falling apart in what had, until then, been perceived as an operational-enough democracy.
I’m not usually into police procedurals in the books I read, although I am rather partial to the Friday night crime-fest of BBC programs on the ABC each week. I think that the writer’s intention in creating a series is a little too blatant here, as he piles on the back-story in this first book. In a series, this background personal information would be drip-fed in a more subtle way over multiple episodes and even multiple seasons. (Although, apparently the manuscript languished in his bottom drawer for many years. Perhaps he’s only aspired to a series since the Ladies Detective Agency success!) The plot is rather over-egged, I think: just one or two of the multiple plot lines would be sufficient. But as a creative and narrative response to the 2007 election it is well worth reading, and it has been even more enjoyable reading the book in Nairobi itself.