Most books are lifted from the realm of ‘”just good” to “great” usually through the advancement or elevation of parts of the writers craft. Story, plot, characters, pacing, structure, etc…Think Raymond Chandler and his elegant use of language in a tough guy setting or James Ellroy and his staccato sentences and telegraphic prose style.
Others use original themes in the pacing – James Patterson’s short chapters for instance drawn almost as scenes from a film or Hemingway’s short, declarative sentences.
Other great authors are able to achieve greatness through inventing or relying on plot devices – the locked room mystery, the MacGuffin, the deus ex machina. Still others rise above the norm through using or revealing not just realism in the prose, but relevant storylines that shine the light of truth on society – Dashiell Hammett did this in his hardboiled stories by writing about corruption in small town business and government. Revealing what is there, but seldom seen or recognized by the general public. Nairobi Heat by Mukoma Wa Ngugi does just that and becomes more than just a good book.
Nairobi Heat rises above being just great “international noir” — it’s a peek behind the curtain of racial relations and points of views; between African Americans and how they perceive white Americans and between African Americans and how they are perceived by black Africans.
This alone would have made for a thought-provoking book, and an important addition to the crime fiction world, but Mukoma Wa Ngugi took it one step further and explored that murky world and motives of international charities, foundations, and religious zealots, and how the rest of the world pays for their conscience.
The story opens with a beautiful dead white girl discovered on the doorstep of a black man, an African professor in Madison, Wisconsin. It not only is the news story of the year, but the crime of the year. As Ishmael, the detective in charge of the investigation, puts it, “If I was to give advice to black criminals, I would tell them this: ‘do not commit crimes against white people because the state will not rest until you are caught.’”
Usually if a crime is not solved in the first 48 hours, it is all but officially gone cold. The professor Joshua Hakiziman, is African – from Kenya and Rwanda. He is not only a learned man but an internationally recognized hero for his actions in rescuing countless thousands of refugees from the genocide of the civil wars. He has been considered for the Nobel Prize, is the poster boy for raising funds to help the victims if genocide and civil wars and he is on the board of an international charitable foundation.
But the girl is not readily identifiable, and the cause of death is not readily determined. There would seem to be no reason to suspect Joshua, no motive, and if he had indeed committed the crime, why would he leave her body on his doorstep and call the police? But he is the only suspect, and the police sense that he is hiding something and he isn’t talking.
Ishmael soon determines that to find a motive, the answers lie in Africa. As Ishmael arrives in Africa he is confronted with thoughts that feel like the thoughts of any American returning to the land of his ancestors: “How many times had I thought of Africa? Not many, I’m afraid. Yes, I knew of Africa. After all it was the land of my ancestors; a place I vaguely longed for without really wanting to belong to it.”
Once in Nairobi, or “Nairobbery” as his Kenyan police liaison, David Odhiambo – called simply ‘O’ — names the city, Ishmael confronts the fact that in Africa, he may be black, but to Africans he is ‘Mzungu, mzungu’ – a white man. Ishmael soon takes this label as badly as if a fellow American had called him a nigger. It is a strange irony to him that as an African American to other black Africans he is just another wealthy tourist – a white man. It takes more than the color of your skin to determine your identity.
He also discovers that the whites in Africa, as well as the wealthy Africans, live in walled and guarded compounds and that life is cheap. It quickly becomes apparent that someone does not want him to learn the truth about Joshua or the dead girl or the true workings of the Foundation, Refugee Centers or charities that supposedly are helping the displaced refugees of the civil wars. There are many attempts on his life — seemingly from all factions — and as the story unfolds in ‘whodunit’ fashion, it veers into violent territory that most whodunits and police procedurals don’t explore.
Nairobi Heat is very much plot driven, but as equally the characters drive the story as they develop – ‘O’ and his family unveil African life for Ishmael, and he meets and gets to know artists, women, white Africans, the folklore, and the recent history of Africa on his quest to uncover the motive, and thus the murderer.
Ngugi not only writes Africa, but writes great noir in this somewhat disturbing, but beautiful piece of crime fiction that breathes that rarified air of great fiction. There is a certain deliberate cadence to the prose in the telling that works very well and the narration is excellent. The dialogue is real without being cliché. The twists and turns of the tale are a morass because so many characters have so much invested in keeping the truth behind the curtain. But Ngugi uses these twists that could otherwise bog the story down to draw a picture of Kenya and her people and also the people and organizations big and small that have their own agendas in mind, whether in enriching themselves or in helping the people. There is blood and violence as the bodies pile up, but it hardly seem gratuitous since Ngugi is so successful in conveying that sense of place that is Africa.