The continent of Africa has been carved up by many talented mystery writers, as we shall see in future posts. Botswana has been laid claim to by Michael Stanley–the writing team of Michael Sears (left in the picture) and Stanley Trollip. Both are retired professors who have worked in academia and business. Sears is a mathematician, specializing in geological remote sensing. Trollip is an educational psychologist, specializing in the application of computers to teaching and learning, and a pilot. They were both born in South Africa.
They have been on a number of flying safaris to Botswana and Zimbabwe, where they have had many adventures, including tracking lions at night, fighting bush fires on the Savuti plains in northern Botswana, being charged by an elephant, and having their plane’s door pop open over the Kalahari, scattering navigation maps over the desert. These trips have fed their love both for the bush, and for Botswana.
It was on one of these trips that the idea surfaced for a novel set in Botswana. The first book in the series, featuring Detective David “Kubu” Bengu of the Botswana Criminal Investigation Department, A Carrion Death, was set in the deserts of Botswana, where the world’s richest diamond mines are located. The story dealt with greed, power, lust, and the conflict between modern views and traditional values. Booklist compared this book to The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, and recommended it to “Henning Mankell fans, who will respond to the complex plots and palpable sense of place.” A New York Times Book Review contributor noted of this book, “Kubu is … hugely appealing – big and solid and smart enough to grasp all angles of this mystery… Readers may be lured to Africa by the landscape, but it takes a great character like Kubu to win our loyalty.” And Kirkus Reviews found it a “stately debut.”
The second book, The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu (USA) or A Deadly Trade (elsewhere), is set in the very north of Botswana, which contrasts vividly with the dry rest of the country.
Michael and Stanley, welcome to Scene of the Crime.
You’ve picked an amazing setting for your Kubu novels. Could you please describe your connection to Africa and more specifically Botswana.
Our books are set in Botswana. The Criminal Investigation Department of the police is based in Gaborone, so our protagonist – Kubu – lives there with his wife and family, but the action in the books takes place all over the country, and in the neighboring southern African countries.
We have loved Botswana for a long time, starting with camping trips there in our youth. There is a variety of cultures, most of which are in the throes of transition from the calmer traditional past to the frenetic present. This makes the country a fascinating backdrop for a novel.
We have made multiple trips to Botswana for pleasure, business and lately for researching our books. Michael lives in bordering South Africa, and Stanley spends much of his time there, too.
What things about Botswana make it unique and a good physical setting for your books?
We have always been attracted to the wonderful diversity of the country, ranging from the water paradise of the Okavango and the riverine Chobe forests, to the arid Kalahari. That sort of diversity is quite unusual – especially in a country with a small population, less than two million. It is easy to get away from the towns, to get to truly wild areas. Places where people can get lost or disappear…
In our first book – A Carrion Death – it is necessary for the murderer to completely destroy the body of his victim. He does this by stripping it, removing anything identifying which may survive the attention of hyenas, and putting it out in an area where wild animals roam. That scenario requires a setting where you will not only find such animals, but also one which you can access without the control and supervision of a national park. Such areas are hard to find in South Africa. But they are readily available in countries like Botswana and Namibia. Botswana seemed an obvious choice because of the attraction of the country itself. So, we suppose the answer to the question is that the plot led us to Botswana, but once there it became an integral part of the stories.
How do you incorporate location in your fiction? Do you pay overt attention to it in certain scenes, or is it a background inspiration for you?
We are always conscious of the locale. This is largely because much is different in Botswana from the western world and even quite different from South Africa. The diamond mines, the wild life areas, the rural towns, even Gaborone itself are central to the background not only of the story but also of most of the characters. The first book revolves around the mines, the wilderness areas (as described above), the contrast of the South African coast – Kubu is nonplussed by the dampness and by the sea itself. The second book is set up in the north, and we exploit the riverine Linyanti area to create an isolated tourist camp where the murders take place. The third book takes place in the southern Kalahari and the sand and heat is everywhere and in everyone.
How does Kubu interact with his surroundings? Is he a native, a blow-in, a reluctant or enthusiastic inhabitant, cynical about it, a booster? And conversely, how does the setting affect Kubu?
Kubu was born and grew up near Gaborone. He is happily married and owns a home there. He sees things that are wrong with the country, but it has never occurred to him to live anywhere else. He has some unusual interests for a native Botswanan, but he reflects the nature of the country and fits well with its traditions.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
There isn’t a very large readership for fiction in Botswana, but the books do sell there. The official language of the country is English, although most people speak the bantu language Setswana. We have had a few local reviews which have been positive.
In A Carrion Death, we sent out a draft manuscript to several readers. We had a scene where Kubu lands by helicopter to investigate a remote farmhouse. He instructed the pilot to keep the engine running in case they needed to make a quick departure. Then, as he walked towards the farmhouse, Kubu was struck by the silence of the desert. One reader commented: “Quiet chopper!” We were able to deal with this before publication.
One mistake we did not catch in time was in the second book, The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu. In one scene we describe Botswana being north east of a particular town in Zimbabwe. We were only out by 180 degrees. It is southwest. At least one reader notified us of this error.
Of your Botswana novels, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
We have a scene in A Carrion Death where Kubu reminisces about growing up with a Bushman friend. The other boy shows him how to ‘see’ in the desert:
Kubu owed the Bushmen a debt of gratitude. His childhood Bushman friend, Khumanego, had shown him how the desert was alive, not dead as he had thought. He remembered vividly how in one school holiday Khumanego had taken him sweltering kilometers into the arid landscape and drawn a circle in the sand a few meters in diameter.
“’What do you see?’ Khumanego had asked him.
“’Sand, stones, and some dry grass. That’s all,’ he had replied.
“Khumanego shook his head gently. ‘Black men!’ he chided. ‘Look again.’
“’I see sand and stones, some small and others a little bigger. Also some dry grass.’
“An hour later the world had changed for Kubu. Khumanego had shown him how to look beyond the obvious, how to explore below the surface, to notice what no one else would see. In that small circle, thrived a teeming world – ants, plants that looked like stones (lithops, he found out later), beetles, and spiders. He loved the lithops – desert plants cunningly disguised as rocks, almost impossible to distinguish from the real things. They blended into their surroundings, pretending to be what they were not.
“The trap-door spider also impressed him. When one looked carefully at the sand, almost imperceptible traces of activity clustered around one area. On his knees, Khumanego pointed to the barely visible crescent in the sand. He gestured to Kubu to pick up a twig and pry the trap-door open. Kubu complied, nervous of what he would find. The open trap door revealed a tunnel, the size and length of a pencil, made from grains of sand and some substance holding them together. Khumanego tapped the tube. A small white spider scurried out and stopped on the hot sand.
“’This spider,’ Khumanego whispered, ‘knows the desert. He digs a hole and makes walls of sand with his web. He makes his home under the sand where it is not so hot. He listens and listens, and when he hears footsteps on the sand, he opens the door, jumps out, catches his meal, and brings it back to his home – appearing and disappearing before the insect knows what is happening. Very clever spider. You don’t know that he is there, but he is very dangerous.’
“Kubu thought that the spider and the lithops survived in the same way – avoiding attention by blending into the background.
“It was the experience of seeing so much when there was so little to see that had the greatest impact. Khumanego had taught him to open his eyes and see what was in front of him. ‘Black people don’t see,’ Khumanego had said. ‘White people don’t want to.’ Kubu returned home that afternoon and vowed he would never be blind again. From that day, Kubu had trained himself to be observant, to see what others did not and to look beyond the obvious.”
Jeffrey Deaver, Fred Vargas, John le Carré, Michael Connelly, Stephen King. Tony Hillerman has a wonderful sense of place.
What’s next for your protagonist?
We’ve just finished the third Detective Kubu book – The Death of the Mantis – and it’s with our editor. This book is set in the southwest of the country in the southern Kalahari desert. A sub-theme is the Bushman people, who have lived in this area for thousands of years, and the dissolution of their nomadic culture. A game ranger at a national park is discovered at the bottom of a ravine. Three Bushmen are with him, apparently trying to help him. The man dies and turns out to have been murdered. The three Bushmen are arrested on suspicion of involvement in the crime. Kubu’s old Bushman school-friend appeals to him to see that justice is done. There was a (real) case some years ago where two Bushmen didn’t get a fair hearing in a murder case. Kubu looks into the matter and quickly decides that the Bushmen should be released. But the situation is more complicated than it appears. And then another man is found murdered. …
Thanks much, gentlemen, for taking part in Scene of the Crime.