‘Hell’s Gate’ by Richard Crompton

2014, 242 p.

I don’t usually read detective stories, but this is the second story I have read by Richard Crompton featuring Detective Mollel, of Maasi origin who works with the Kenyan CID. I read Crompton’s first book, The Honey Guide after visiting Nairobi for the first time and I’m surprised that I didn’t review it on this blog, because I enjoyed it. The Honey Guide was set in Nairobi, in the midst of the violence that broke out in Nairobi after the elections in 2007. Visiting Nairobi in 2014, I found it hard to imagine the bloodshed that occurred just streets from where we were living, and to realize that the locals we met had experienced (and possibly participated?) in the violence.

The author is a British journalist who has lived in Nairobi since 2005, having previously worked at the BBC. He captures Nairobi really well, and he does the same thing again with the Lake Naivasha setting of Hell’s Gate. Again, we had visited Lake Naivasha in 2014 and stayed on the lake edge, and the kids visited the Hell’s Gate National Park for which this book is named. It’s a strenuous walk amongst volcanic outcrops and I bailed out, I confess. So, even if I’m not a great fan of detective novels, it’s the Kenyan setting that draws me in – and lets face it, how many Kenyan detective stories have you read?

As with all good detective stories, there are disappearances, and there is a loner detective. In Mollel’s case, he is Masaai amongst a police force made up of Kikuyus and Luos, working in a police force notorious for its corruption. His wife had died several years earlier in the 1998 bombing of the American embassy in Nairobi, leaving him to bring up their son. This book starts with a jolt as Mollel is thrown into jail – not a place anyone (let alone a policeman) would want to be -and then backtracks a week to explain how he got there. The plot is set against the cut-flower industry that dominates Naivasha with its huge plastic tunnels, and the Chinese influence that we noticed through the thermal activity infrastructure just up from the lodge in which we stayed. The Kenya Wildlife Service gets a look-in as well, in this tourist-dominated town that has many different agendas running against each other.

The huge plastic ‘glasshouses’ where flowers are grown for the European flower markets. There are hundreds of these plastic tunnels with associated worker housing all around Lake Naivasha.

I really don’t do detective films, series or books very well because I usually end up wondering whether I ‘got’ it. It always seems that there are so many false leads that when the crime is on the point of being solved, everything happens at once. This happens in Hell’s Gate as well, as your perception of ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ gets completely tangled. Do I know who did it and why? I think so, but that’s not why I read it. I read it for the Nairobi setting and the flashes of recognition from several visits.

My rating: I don’t really know quite how to rate it as it’s not a genre I usually read, and that’s not why I read it. 7?

Sourced from: my own bookshelves, given to me by my son an embarrassing number of years ago. I shouldn’t have waited so long.

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