Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Book Review: Nairobi Heat by Mukoma Wa Ngugi

Nairobi Heat is the first crime novel by an African writer that I’ve ever read and I can honestly say that I liked it. Perhaps that’s due to the fact that I cannot really label it, say that is that it belongs to one genre or another. The non-stop action, the blood splattered scenes and the twists and turns, somehow remind me of an American thriller; its social background though is so solid and realistic, that maybe I would do it a disservice by saying that this is just a thriller and nothing more.
     It all begins when a naked young woman is found dead outside the house of an African human rights activist, in Madison, Wisconsin. Detective Ishmael, an African American who rushes to the scene of the crime, feels from the very first moment that there’s more to this murder than what at first meets the eye; namely, layer upon layer of secrets and lies. The man who discovered the body is quite famous for his humanitarian efforts during the genocide in Rwanda and is said to have saved hundreds of people, thus the logic dictates that someone is trying to frame him for the murder. In this particular area most of the people are white and the Ku Klux Klan has a very strong presence, so as expected the heat is on for the detective right from the start. However, nobody seems to know who the dead woman is, and since the police cannot identify the victim, there’s no way to look for a motive. So before too long Ishmael’s investigation reaches a dead end, due to the lack of clues. The media and the higher ups in the political food chain though will not give the matter a rest that easily, so the pressure on the chief of police, who also happens to be an African American, keeps mounting. When everything seems lost though, they will by chance find a lead. An anonymous informer will tell them to look for the answers they seek where it all started, in Africa, and particularly Kenya.
     So the born and raised in the US Ishmael will soon find himself on a flight to Nairobi, where a Kenyan cop called David Odhiambo, but generally known as O, will bid him welcome. The country is considerably peaceful, if compared with its neighbors, but nevertheless corruption and chaos seem to rule the day. Violent crime is a way of life, the outskirts of the city (which the locals call Nairoberry) are kill zones, and money, as in Ishmael’s home country one would say, is god. The detective, used as he is in following certain rules and procedures when investigating a case, is at the beginning disgusted with and shocked by his colleague’s attitude, but the more time he spends there, the more he comes to realize that in that place there’s only one way to get things done, so he starts following O’s example. In a country were lawlessness is the law, the men of the real law just have to use any means necessary to enforce it. Besides, as O says: “…we are bad people too. The only difference is that we fight on the side of the good”.
     Thus the two of them together, law enforcers and avengers at the same time, will spend the next few days going from one place to the next, questioning people, drinking lots of beer and enjoying music, making love and shooting and getting shot at, trying to work things out. Their insistence and resolve will one day be rewarded, but until then they will many times come face to face with death, go head to head with some of the country’s rich and powerful and re-open some old wounds, which have never really stopped bleeding.
     This is of those novels that stand out not only for their plot and action, but also about the story they have to say; here the micro history, which too many times alters the lives of people in painful ways, but the official history as well, the one that becomes common knowledge, and which more often than not is based on lies.
     This is a great novel that should be read from crime fiction aficionados and literary fiction fans alike, since it has too much to say, to everyone.

No comments: