Review: A Carrion Death, Michael Stanley

Alexander McCall-Smith’s No. 1 Detective Agency introduced us to a delightfully fresh setting for crime stories, namely Botswana. His well-known work, featuring the much-loved Mma Ramotswe is a rollicking string of morality tales imbued with good humour and an African charm uniquely its own. But his stories can be seen as deflecting from the true nature of crime, hankering instead after an Africa that’s more nostalgia than reality.

Not so Michael Stanley’s A Carrion Death.

The novel begins with two game wardens that discover human remains near a waterhole on the edge of the Kalahari. There’s not much left of it, just scraps of hair and bone, most of it devoured by scavengers. At first it’s suspected that the body belongs to a poacher, then a tourist who’d wandered off into the night. But when Senior Superintendent David “Kubu” Bengu of Botswana’s Criminal Investigation Department arrives on the scene, it’s cleverly established that not only was the body purposefully dumped there, persons unknown have conspired to hide the fact that the country’s most powerful corporation, the Botswana Cattle and Mining Company, is somehow involved. Not long after, Detective Kubu is probing into ancient rituals performed at the site by witch doctors, diamond smuggling that works its way around the Kimberly Process, and corruption at the highest level.

And all the while the death toll keeps spinning like a seven aces jackpot.

Kubu surely is the centrepiece of Michael Stanley’s work. His nickname meaning hippopotamus, he’s as huge as he’s smart, as garrulous and easy-going as he’s incisive and determined. While the investigation is quite bloody – there’s a scene where one of the killers breaks a sweat trying to snap a corpse’s arm on the edge of a bath – Kubu’s joyful life seems to counterbalance the brutality.

Unlike the majority of deeply flawed crime fiction detectives out there, Kubu’s greatest vice is food taken with a lovely Chardonnay. He’s so thoroughly normal compared to the genre’s other characters that he comes out looking unusual and refreshing, which is why one can see a good many readers taking a shine to this series.

As a debut novel A Carrion Death holds its own. The fact that it steadily fought its way to the LA Times bestseller list is testament to this. But in places the novel does slow to a snail’s pace before picking up again. Also, there are a number of shifts in time in the first acts, not only changing from past to present tense to explore one sub-plot, but moving backwards and forwards over a six week period, to fill in the gaps around the evil mastermind’s motivations. It all comes together in the last act, but one has to question whether this cross-cutting adds to the novel.

A Carrion Death is a strong beginning to what will no doubt turn out to be a fun series. A Deadly Trade, Michael Stanley’s second novel, has just come out, and will be reviewed later in this blog. Watch out for it.

Read it if you’re looking for a story set in a fabulously rich setting that’s unusual and new. Read it if you are the type of reader who is happy to digest larger sections of back story and character development. And definitely read it, if you’re on the look-out for a crime series that’s a little more light-hearted and warm than the usual stash of noir. Check out Michael Stanley's website at Detective Kubu.

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