STEPPING OUT OF THEIR COMFORT ZONE STANLEY’S DEADLY THRILLER SHEDS LIGHT ON THE RHINO TRADE

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dead-of-night cvrIt is believed in the west that gold, cocaine  and platinum are some of the most expensive commodities on the planet but actually in Asia there is something even more expensive than all three of them; ground down rhino horn. The current market price is estimated at $60,000 per kilogram. As for the number of Rhinos poached, 1,175 was the number in South Africa in 2016 according to Al Jazeera. Poaching in South Africa has increased by 8000% between 2007 and 2017. Its not only the rhinos who suffer. In 2014 there were 56 ranger deaths reported worldwide as a result of being killed by poachers. Of that number 27 were in South Africa and it is estimated that the actual number of rangers killed there is three or four times that. The trade in rhino horn is the subject for this months second book review. Its ‘Dead Of Night‘, by Michael Stanley and was published in June 2018 by Orenda books (www.Orendabooks.co.uk)

Dead of Night is  the story of Crystal (Chrys) Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American journalist searching for the truth behind the disappearance of her friend and potential love interest ,Michael, who  has disappeared while researching a story for the National Geographic on the poachers and their South African and Vietnamese contacts. Despite constant warnings that ‘these are very dangerous people’, she decides to travel to South Africa to write up the unfinished article and, hopefully, to find and save Michael.

Her first port of call is a rhino farm, Chrys’s host is a crotchety old white rancher who has put his fortune into developing a rhino reserve and organizing anti-poaching posses. He believes that the horn which he has stockpiled from ‘shaving’ the animals in his reserve should be sold legally to flood the market and reduce prices, incidentally making a fortune which would save his finances. While at the farm ,Chrys witnesses the torture and killing of poachers and she begins to wonder if they have been killed to deter poaching or to cover up another secret. Her journey to find Michael takes her from South Africa to Vietnam and into direct confrontation with the police, governments, NGO’s (Non-Governmental Organisation) and the poachers.

This is a fast-paced action story with a strong plot, believable characters and lots of enjoyable twists and turns.

The book is timely, as we become more aware that humans are driving so many species Rhino2to extinction. The WWF Living Planet Report published in October claims the animal population on the planet has declined by 60% between 1970 and 2014 . Along with the assertion by some people that our impact over the last few generations may be compared to the four great extinction events in global history, the last of  which famously wiped out the dinosaurs.

Our heroine Chrys is a traditional female super-hero of a type that is rare nowadays, in an all-male world of gangsters, police and shades in between. I have become tired of the endless stream of seriously mixed up, and usually alcoholic, detectives in modern crime thrillers across all media, so Chrys is refreshingly straightforward. She has a back story of course, and her own hang-ups, but she never descends into despair or criminality. I also like the fact that she is a journalist, not a detective. She can shoot if she needs to, but it does not come naturally to her.

The rest of the characters, all men, are predominantly white, as well as satisfyingly ambiguous and we are not sure until the end who has compromised themselves in this murky world, or why they did so.

The descriptions of the killing of Rhinos for their horn are horrific.  Sometimes, however, I feel that the narrator is less worried about the killing of innocent people in the crossfire between gangs and police.

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Michael Stanley (Michael Sears & Stanley Trollip)

This the seventh book by Michael Stanley who is in fact a two-man team, of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip (www.detectivekubu.com). This is the first book not to feature their rotund Botswana Police detective David “Kubu” Bengu,  A couple of which have been very well received on this blog previously, although I have not read any of them myself.

If I have a quibble, it is about the settings. On their website, the authors mention having spent time in other African countries but do not mention South Africa or, for that matter, Vietnam. These are the main export and import countries for illegal rhino horn, but the authors have made little attempt to add local colour or context. The game estate and the police in South Africa come across more like Kenya or even Zambia, without South Africa’s complex layers of former Bantustans, conflicting political groups or urbanization. South African is also useful to the plot because of the widespread use of English and the occasional conversations in Afrikaans to add mystery at some points.  Similarly, Vietnam comes across more like corrupt corners of Indonesia or Philippines, without distinctively Vietnamese characteristics, though this setting does allow for the Vietnamese-American heroine to understand overheard conversations unbeknownst to the locals.

At one level this might not matter – after all this is just the setting for a thriller. However, I am always annoyed when thrillers which use Ireland as a convenient location, then get it wrong, so I imagine that South Africans and Vietnamese will feel the same about this one.

If you like thrillers, then this is a a good read, tense and well written, which I would certainly recommend downloading or picking up a copy next time you’re in a book shop.

 

Reviewed by Robin Hanan

STANLEY AND TROLLIP REAP THE REWARDS OF A DEADLY HARVEST IN THIS DARK AND ORIGINAL PROCEDURAL FROM BOTSWANA

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deadlyharvest-coverAccording to the Forbes 2000 list of 2015, the top three pharmaceutical companies in the world were, Johnson & Jonson followed closely by Pfizer and Novartis, together they were worth $722 Billion. It’s feasible that as I write this or you read it, quite a few of your neighbours, members of your family, maybe even you the reader are on one of their medicines. In certain parts of the world, usually below the equator and in under developed countries but not excluding some developing nations, large swathes of the population prefer to rely on another type of medicine. That prescribed by a witch doctor. They don’t make the money that their 1st world counterparts do but they have an equally big following, god like in some instances. In most cases the difference between these witch doctors and your Novartis’s and Pfizer’s is that your local pharmacy doesn’t ask you to supply the raw materials for the cure yourself. This brings me to this month’s book, its Deadly Harvest by Michael Stanley (www.detectivekubu.com) published by Orenda Books (www.orendabooks.com ).

Set in the vast central southern African country of Botswana, one of the continent’s most stable and democratically successful nations. It is the continent’s largest producer of diamonds and also home to some of largest and lushest game reserves. We witness the abduction of a number of young girls in townships around the country’s capital Gaborone. The police in these outlying areas are under resourced and at times not bothered to expend precious energy in the unrelenting heat, to look for school girls who have wandered off. A couple of months after the disappearances Assistant Superintendent David “Kubu” Bengu of the Botswana CID is approached by his newest member of staff Samantha Khama, a cocky young female detective. She asks for permission to look into the cases, as she grew up in one of the townships. To keep her quiet, occupied and out from under his feet he gives her permission. A couple of days later she’s back with clues, which suggest they maybe have been abducted for “Muti” which is traditional medicine. Then, when a senior police officer and a government minister are killed Kubu and Kharma realise they are dealing with the possibility of serial killing Witch Doctor. Will they find the victims in time? Catch a killer protected by black magic ? Whose clients live in fear of it and will do anything to protect the evil medicine man, even using  Muti to derail Kubu’s case and promotional prospects.

This book brought back to my time about 15 years ago when I was working in customer services on the Botswana desk of large international credit card company, which had just introduced one of the first credit cards to the country. The fairly poorly educated population saw the credit limit as an extension of their salary. So delighted were they to have been given what they thought was free money, that they were forever looking for an extension to their credit limit, having maxed out the card by quoting the number in shops even before the actual card itself had arrived from Head Office. Every day the same people usually would phone in going “Arragha… More Pula!”, during my time in that department I got to learn about the country, it’s people and the strange customs such as naming people after what we would consider ordinary everyday items, in the hope it will bring luck or good prospects.

Deadly Harvest is a fantastic read, with a tense original story that draws you

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African Witch Doctors

in and holds you enthralled from the first to the last page. There is something very ordinary about this police procedural that had me drawing similarities to it and an episode of Midsommer Murders.

Maybe because there’s no fancy CSI – tech driven, American styled storylines. The Botswana lifestyle and culture keep you and the characters firmly grounded a million miles from other stories which feel like they’ve just been transported out of Vegas or NYC.

One of the funniest aspects is that their Forensics department is using a piece of cutting edge lab equipment ! this is however, borrowed from the South African Police Force for another case. Even in their day to day lives the population of this middle income ,developing nation still have to use internet cafés or shared public computers in pubs and shebeens to do basic stuff on the internet.

Again this helps draw out the real beauty of this non-pretentious African nation which unlike it’s it neighbours has been fairly unscathed by political unrest and has gone from having one of the highest rates of HIV in the world to being at the bottom end of the scale now.  Although HIV has left its legacy and this is reflected right the way through book and especially in one of the parallel storylines where David Bengu’s wife is trying to convince him to adopt a friend of his daughters who has been orphaned by the disease.

Assistant Superintendent David Bengu himself is a unique character who through Stanley’s descriptions, had me picturing someone who might look like a result of having fused the genes of Kojacks’s sidekick Stavros and Inspector Morse. Owing to his girth, love of food, opera and wine.

This is the fourth book in the detective Kubu series which was first published in the USA in 2013 and then in the UK late last year. Micheal Stanley is actually a pseudonym for the writing team of South African authors Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, following in the footsteps of other partnerships using one pen name, such as Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and Bill Fawcett – Quinn Fawcett – who wrote the Madame Vernet series and the Mycroft Holmes series, as well as husband and wife team Nicci Gerrard and Sean French who write crime fiction as Nicci French.

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Michael Stanley – aka Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip

The other three books in the series are A Carrion of death, A Deadly Trade (The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu – USA) and Death of The Mantis. A fifth book in series A Death In The Family was just published in August. You can find out more about the authors at their website www.detectivekubu.com

What makes this book such an appealing and a wonderful read is the originality of the story (although I was immediately hooked by the cover art and the blurb on the back) Nowhere else in recent times have I seen the forces of law and order take on the dark forces of black magic Well, not in the last  66 years,  from when James Bond tackled drugs lord ‘Mr. Big’ in Ian Fleming’s Live and let Die. (I am open to correction)

Some could argue John Connolly’s books have law and order tackling dark forces, but Charlie Parker is an ex police detective. Even Botswana’s other great literary export The No.1 Ladies detective agency – written by Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith hasn’t got law and Order going toe to toe with a Witch Doctor, because again his heroine Precious Ramotswe is a private citizen.

This along with the fact that it’s unusual to find a police procedural set in a developing nation punching well above its weight and taking on the ever growing influx of Scandi Crime novels as well as the homegrown British and American stalwarts.  I think that makes this one of the best pieces of crime fiction I’ve read in a while. So as I prepare to go on my honeymoon to the Algarve next week, I’ll definitely make sure that A Death In The Family will be in the case and if like me your heading away soon for a bit of autumnal sun seeking, make sure you take pick up a copy of Deadly Harvest and make friends with an original down to earth detective in the form of Assistant Superintendent David “Kubu” Bengu .