Thrilling roller coaster with a long wait — a review of Kwei Quartey’s Gold of Our Fathers

Kwei Quartey writes mysteries that give a window into current Ghanaian social issues. Some authors with African ties — Quartey was born in Ghana and grew up between Ghana and the US — cringe at the assumption that they are writing “ethnographic texts dolled up as literary fiction,” as Taiye Selasi put it. Quartey — to the contrary — embraces that role in his crime novels: His first book with detective Darko Dawson of the Ghana Police Service explored polygamy and traditional religion, his second dealt with street kids, his third was set in the oil industry, and — in Dawson’s fourth outing — we come to the gold mining industry in Gold of Our Fathers.

Dawson is a highly capable detective. He’s not corrupt. He’s faithful to his wife. (He almost cheated in the last book, but he just couldn’t do it!) He occasionally smokes pot but he’s trying to kick the habit, with broad success. He’s so capable that at the beginning of this book, he is transferred far from the capital, Accra, to fill in for a deceased officer in Obuasi, a rural gold-mining district in central-southern Ghana. As soon as he arrives a Chinese immigrant miner is found murdered. Dawson is on the job!

My favorite Darko Dawson novel is the second, Children of the Street. This one, by contrast, felt like two novels in the one. The second half is captivating. The first half is paced very slowly (it took me weeks to work my way through) and has far too much language that sounds like “teaching Westerners about Ghana,” as in this exchange:

“How far, boss?” the sergeant asked, slang for “How goes it.”

or this one

Dawson: “I’m broke—can you mobile me a little cash?” 

Dawson’s wife Christine: “Okay—I’ll send what I can by MTN Money.”

Presumably Dawson knows how he and his wife send money and she wouldn’t clarify. There are many other examples. 

I’ve never been to Ghana, and maybe this won’t bother you if you haven’t either, but I prefer the unapologetically immersive style that lets readers catch up on local culture rather than bringing them along by the hand.

If you haven’t read Darko Dawson, start with the first or second book. This book is a great ride if you don’t mind waiting a while to get to it.

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Should you worry about your legacy? Lessons from a time-traveling poet, a TV comedy writer, and a crime novelist

In a 1916 story entitled “Enoch Soames,” Max Beerbohm recounts the tale of a hack poet (Soames) who frets to his friend (Beerbohm) about his inability to enjoy the fame that will assuredly accrue to him posthumously. If only he could step into the Reading Room of the British Museum one hundred years hence: “Think of the pages and pages in the catalogue: ‘Soames, Enoch’ endlessly.”

Of course, the devil happens to be sitting at the next table and offers Soames the chance to do just that in exchange for his soul. Soames zooms to the Reading Room a century ahead. He checks for himself in the card catalogue. Nothing. He checks a few encyclopedias. Nothing. Finally, he finds a book on “English Literature: 1990-2000.” There he finds himself in the following passage: “For example, a writer of the time, Max Beerbohm, who was still alive in the twentieth century, wrote a story in which he portrayed an imaginary character called ‘Enoch Soames’ — a third-rate poet who believes himself a great genius.” History hasn’t forgotten Soames; it fictionalized him. 

This fear for our legacy recurs: Just yesterday I saw an episode of the Dick Van Dyke show that aired in 1963, where the title character — a TV comedy writer — laments, “All I write are jokes. Nothing I write has any real permanence about it. [It is said] on the television once and it’s gone forever.”

Maybe this desire to be remembered is all overblown. Perhaps the late great detective novelist, Robert B. Parker, had it right. When asked how his books would be viewed in 50 years, he replied, “Don’t know, don’t care.”

But in the present he brought great pleasure to many.

Notes

my genre fiction is telling me i should be reading literary fiction

About halfway through Robert Parker’s School Days, the detective Spenser sits down for a drink with his client, the elderly Lily Ellsworth:

“You seem an honest man, sir,” she said.
“‘Let be be the end of seem,'” I said.
She smiled faintly.
“‘The only emperor,'” she said, “‘is the emperor of ice cream.'”
“Very good,” I said.
“My generation read, Mr. Spenser; apparently yours did, too.”
“Or at least I did,” I said. “Still do.”

Here, Spenser is quoting Wallace Stevens’ 1922 poem, “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” and Lily responds with the next line of the poem. The subtext — by my reading — is that in their generations, they read literature. (They’re not, after all, quoting Stephen King or V.C. Andrews.)

Two ironies stand out. The first is that Spenser actually misquotes the original poem; the line is “Let be be finale of seem” (which is less intuitive to the modern ear, but so be it). The second, of course, is that I’m reading this in a pulpy detective novel.

And yet, I adore Parker’s Spenser novels. I don’t read any other writer who matches Parker for witty dialogue. I haven’t read one in a while, and I found this on the free book shelf at the library in a beach town this summer, and reading it was like spending a few hours with a dear old friend. Spenser characterizes himself well: “I am persistent, and fearless, and reasonably smart.”

A few other quotes that I enjoyed:
  • On persistence: “Keeping at it is one of my best things.”
  • On overdoing things: “A thing worth doing…was worth overdoing.”
  • On making do: “It’s a poor workman who blames his tools.”
  • On persistence (II): “I don’t know how smart you are,” he said. “But I’ll give you stubborn.”
  • On expertise in your field and out of your field: “You been a fighter…and you stay in shape, you don’t lose that many fights outside the ring.”
  • On seeking truth: “You probably can’t figure out the truth, if you think you know ahead of time what the truth is supposed to be.”
  • On self-mastery:
“You need to work on your inhibitions,” I said.
“Controlling them?” Rita said.
“No,” I said. “Acquiring some.”

(awesome) book review: Gun, with Occasional Music, by Jonathan Lethem

The book is awesome, not the review.

beautifully done crime novel with a subtle-ish dose of Where Are We All Headed? I read it in 24 hours

I’m currently reading Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree, and he mentioned reading Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude, which reminded how much several people I know loved Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, which in turn reminded me of a little science fiction (ish) novel that Lethem wrote back in 1994 which I had wanted to read. That’s the genealogy. I picked up the book last week, and I basically read it in the last 24 hours (while traveling from DC to Atlanta to Rio to Brasilia). It had me completely captivated.

A hard-boiled detective addicted to dope and flowery metaphors goes up against the institutional cops to solve a murder. And there’s a kangaroo with a gun. And a house that’s a hologram. And people getting frozen (think Han Solo at the end of The Empire Strikes Back). But before you stop, the beauty of Lethem’s novel is that it doesn’t feel like science fiction. It feels like a captivating crime noir novel. The reason is that Lethem reels you in at the first pages with the story and the character, and only bit by bit, over time, do you realize that the world is different from our own (right now). (One problem with much science fiction and fantasy is that it requires such a massive investment to start the book: the planet of what? the what-reorganizing matter machine? huh?) And the science fiction elements all feel relevant: the walking, talking animals are the result of artificial evolution processes, and everyone is taking to dope to forget their lives (think a gritty Brave New World). The crime story itself has the requisite zillion twists and turns, and Lethem leads us right up to an impressively surprising finale.

Note: Lots of strong language, a fair amount of violent, and some sexual content.

a postmodern detective nods to a most decidedly non postmodern detective

On my last trip to Rio I started E. L. Doctorow’s City of God. After all, that’s the name of one of the most well known slums in Rio (and a book and movie that take place therein). Doctorow is talking about a different city though: New York. After reading ten of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot novels over the last year, this narrative struck me:

While I was at it, I bought half a dozen used paperback detective novels. To learn the trade … I just read the…things when I’m dpressed. The paperback detective he speaks to me. His rod and his gaff they comfort me. [p8]

Those last two sentence are classic Hercule Poirot sentence construction.  (Kind of like Yoda’s but also … different.)

 

On my last trip to Rio I started E. L. Doctorow’s City of God. After all, that’s the name of one of the most well known slums in Rio. (Doctorow is talking about a different city though.) After reading ten of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot novels over the last year, this narrative struck me:

While I was at it, I bought half a dozen used paperback detective novels. To learn the trade … I just read the…things when I’m dpressed. The paperback detective he speaks to me. His rod and his gaff they comfort me. [p8]

Those last two sentence are classic Hercule Poirot sentence construction. (Kind of like Yoda’s but also … different.)

Borges and the Eternal Orangutans: not to be missed!

A couple of months ago I posted a review of this fabulous Brazilian novel, Borges and the Eternal Orangutans.   I hadn’t read it in English and so couldn’t vouch for the translation, but today I stumbled on a collection of reviews of the English translation and they are glowing!

I’ll pass on two quotes:

“Luis Fernando Verissimo’s Borges and the Eternal Orangutans is a perfect novel. I’ll say it again: This book is a perfect novel. (…) The reader will mourn because the novel is so short, and it’s only the second by Verissimo to be translated into English” – Thomas McGonigle, The Los Angeles Times

“In the end, Verissimo’s pleasure in his own absurd intertextual universe is infectious: the two-way-mirror trickery of his conclusion is as satisfying as it is utterly predictable. As Borges wrote of Poe: “we might think that his plots are so weak that they are almost transparent”. Luis Fernando Verissimo’s is decidedly threadbare; but he knows, with his heroes, that a predictable detective story is not necessarily an imperfect one.” – Brian Dillon, Times Literary Supplement

More at The Complete Review

book review: The A.B.C. Murders, by Agatha Christie

a serial killer who leaves train guides with the bodies

In this novel, Poirot is rejoined by his old, marvelously obtuse friend Hastings (whom we haven’t seen since Lord Edgeware Dies, four novels ago, since when he has been at his ranch in Argentina). A serial murder goes on the rampage, sending challenging letters to Poirot in the process, and Poirot and Hastings are on the trail!

Hastings hasn’t gotten any smarter, but that’s not particularly unrealistic; I’m not sure that hanging out with a great detective would make me any more of a great detective myself, either.

One thing I really enjoyed about this book was the intertextuality. I’m a total sucker for references, even if they’re fictional – I loved the references in Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics and still loved them (albeit less) after figuring out that most were invented. Hastings comes to visit Poirot, and Poirot suggests that it would be very nice to have a really interesting, challenging murder to solve together. Hastings talks about how multiple murders would be better, as having one murder at the beginning followed by a long ruling out of suspects can be tiresome (which seemed a reference to the recent and lovely Death in the Clouds). At some point Poirot mentions that he recent almost got killed himself (an allusion to Three Act Tragedy), Poirot reminds Hastings how love can be found in the context of murder (an allusion to Hastings’ finding his own wife in Murder on The Links), etc.

A minor annoyance is that Christie tries so hard to make Hastings the real narrator that she has a big explanation at the beginning about how it is that Hastings is narrating certain things he didn’t observe; I think it’d have been better simply to drop Hasting’s role (or leave those things out), but it clearly wasn’t my call!

I found the ending a little unsatisfying although I cannot put my finger on way. Christie had me completely fooled as to who the murderer was, multiple times, but somehow the final identity left me less convinced than some, like the last book (Death in the Clouds). But it was an entertaining read for my hotel in Tanzania.

Next comes Murder in Mesopotamia, but I think I need a little break from Poirot. Little Dorrit, anyone?