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.'”