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by Michael Stanley
Harper, March 2009
512 pages
ISBN: 0061252417

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When a ranger and an ecologist come across a corpse that has been half eaten by scavengers, it is immediately apparent that this is no ordinary misadventure. In the first place, the man was white and no tourist has been reported missing. Additionally, he had been wearing no clothes and no vehicle is parked nearby to explain how he got to this remote bit of the Kalahari. They put in a call to the Botswana police and in due course, Assistant Superintendent David "Kubu" Bengu arrives to investigate.

The assistant superintendent is perhaps deceptive in appearance. As his nickname, Kubu, ("hippotamus" in Setswana) suggests, he is a very big man indeed, fond of good food, good wine, and an appalling soft drink concoction called a "steelworks." But he is also very young to hold the rank he does and as we get to know him better, we can see why he has risen so rapidly. He has a sharp, trained intelligence, a sceptical mind, and a dedication to the job at hand that leads him where he needs to go. The child of poor parents, he went on scholarship to an excellent school and then to university where he learned to appreciate the opera that he indulges on his long drives through the Botswana countryside.

In this case, he will be led through and over large stretches of Botswana and into neighbouring South Africa. He will need to penetrate the higher reaches of the boardroom of the major, if fictional, Botswana Cattle and Mining Company as well as assorted diamond mines, bush camps, and exclusive game reserves. He will have to unravel a complicated conspiracy which is responsible for a rather startling body count by the time it is all over. Kubu himself remarks that it is beginning to look like the last act of Hamlet as bodies keep turning up, dispatched in various violent ways, especially surprising in a country as peaceful as Botswana.

That country is becoming a familiar venue for crime, especially considering the success of Alexander McCall Smith's Precious Ramotswe and her No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. I have never been in Africa, let alone Botswana, but were I planning a visit, I suspect that I would be better prepared for the place if I'd read A CARRION DEATH than all of Mma Ramotswe's collected cases. Both protagonists are "traditionally built," but that's where the resemblance ends. The two authors who write as Michael Stanley (Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip), native South Africans, appear to know Botswana well and to be very fond of it. Their portrait of the country, while affectionate, is far from romanticised. What emerges is a sense of place that is fully three dimensional, a country that while certainly modern, still maintains a sense of its past and a respect for its traditions.

A CARRION DEATH is a first novel and as such has some of the usual faults. There is far too much plot, for example, and it takes too long to get it all sorted. But its great strength is in its characters, most especially Kubu Bengu himself. Interestingly, Michael Sears has said in an interview that initially they had planned for another character to be the lead, but that Kubu had simply taken over. Readers can be very grateful that they let him have his way. I for one am looking forward to his return.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, April 2009

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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