A Carrion Death, by Michael Stanley

A CARRION DEATH is a rip-roaring read. Set in Botswana, the main character is Assistant Superintendent David "Kubu" Bengu. He's a very large man (hence the nickname, which means "hippo") who loves opera and is happy to be under the thumb of his lovely wife Joy and be the dutiful son to his elderly, traditional parents. The action begins when a body is discovered in the desert. The victim has been almost completely eaten by hyenas, but some scientists on a local field trip stumble across the remains before they vanish for good.

Kubu is called to the scene, and immediately suspects that the dead man was murdered, a suspicion that is soon confirmed by the pathologist. We quickly see that as well as being an engaging man, Kubu is keenly intelligent, intuitive and determined. His investigation into the identity of the body takes him to the heart of the Botswana Cattle and Mining Company, run by the somewhat unpleasant-seeming Cecil Hofmeyr.

The action switches to six weeks earlier. We learn that Cecil has been chairman and chief executive of the company since the death of his brother in an air crash about fifteen years ago. Family tensions are running high, because Dianna and Angus, Cecil's twin niece and nephew, are due to inherit their dead father's lion's share of the company on their thirtieth birthdays in a few days' time. Cecil is clearly up to some dodgy deals involving investing company money in a personal venture, a diamond mine, and is keen for the twins not to discover his activities. His machinations infuriate Dianna, who is highly qualified in economics and has a big chip on her shoulder because her father always preferred her playboy brother Angus as his heir to the business. Kubu is an old school friend of Angus, and the two men are pleased to be briefly reunited at the twins' birthday celebrations. Also at the party is Kubu's boss Jacob Makabu, a golfing friend of Cecil's.

After a couple of these temporal digressions, we return to the murder investigation, and Kubu's increasing awareness that the diamond mine is a focus of the mystery. One of its geologists, Aron Frankental, has disappeared after writing to Cecil about his suspicions about the diamonds being mined. His letter is stolen from Cecil's office, but after reporting the fact, Cecil is strangely reluctant for the police to pursue the matter. To add to the complexity, Dianna is having an affair with the mine's manager and Cecil's co-investor, Jason Ferraz, who has his own agenda.

The story continues with great verve, and the pace never flags as more complexities are added to the mix. Kubu is good at turning up leads, but witnesses and suspects disappear – each time he comes up with a hypotheses, an inconsistency renders it impossible or someone is attacked and put out of the running. He is also slightly suspicious of his boss, who is friends with Cecil and who has to keep in with his political superiors: what support will Kubu receive if these influential people turn out to be in the frame?

A CARRION DEATH is very long, but it is a great read. It is full of action and adventure, yet very strong on characterisation. The identity of the villain and the motivation for the crime are obvious very early on, so most of the satisfaction in the plot involves working out the details of how the various aspects fit together.

The depiction of Botswanan life and culture is fascinating, as are the ins and outs of the boardroom politics. The characters come from different backgrounds, races and cultures: the post-colonial theme is not heavy-handed but it permeates the book. We see how institutions and characters have adapted and are adapting to independence, and how some attitudes have not changed, even though they may be expressed with more subtlety than in previous eras.

I haven't read any books by Wilbur Smith for some years, but this book reminded me a little of those adventurous stories, as well as the books written years ago by Hammond Innes. What is different here, though, are the sympathetic observations of the characters and the country. Botswana is shown in a gentler, more romantic light in Alexander McCall Smith's successful NO.1 LADIES' DETECTIVE AGENCY series. In A CARRION DEATH, the same country is certainly recognisable, but is seen with a slightly more masculine, hard-edged perspective.

A CARRION DEATH is a collaboration between two authors who are very knowledgeable on a whole range of topics, and who pack in a mass of fascinating detail about various professions and skills as part of the exciting plot. I had great fun reading this book; even though the last hundred pages or so were too drawn-out, I think that Detective Kubu is set for many great things.

First published at Euro Crime, April 2008.

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This entry was posted in Africa, Books, Botswana, Crime fiction, Debut, Eurocrime, Police procedural, Series, Social comment, Thriller and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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