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Nairobi Heat by Mukoma Wa Ngugi (thoughts)

September 19, 2011


Regular readers know that my taste in mysteries is far closer to the traditional end of the spectrum, where there’s no graphic violence, sex is merely hinted at obliquely, and the last chapter involves a tidy reveal and the murderer being left to face justice, as embodied by the state. Nairobi Heat by Mukoma Wa Ngugi is the polar opposite of this: a fast-paced thriller type of mystery, in which the narrator finds himself in many a seedy situation, and the plot’s driven by a cynical view of the corruption of international NGOs. And yet, I very much enjoyed myself! Mukoma Wa Ngugi is an excellent writer, with a firm sense of place and fleshed-out characters (they definitely bear a resemblance to ‘stock’ thriller/mystery characters, but with enough individuality to be convincing). He’s also fiercely intelligent, and as an international relations nerd I found the plot and setting quite appealing (for movie buffs, think of films like The Constant Gardener and The Interpreter, only with actual black Africans-Kenyan and Rwandan-playing more than bit roles).

You might be wondering what the plot is, eh? Madison-based Detective Ishmael (who describes himself as a black cop in a white town) gets assigned to a strange murder case: a young white girl’s body shows up in the doorstep of Joshua Hakizimana, a famous Rwandan peace activist currently teaching at the local university. After the local investigation gets nowhere, Ishmael goes to Nairobi (where Hakizimana’s NGO is headquartered) and teams up with a local cop to try to unravel the conspiracy there. Meanwhile, various powerful forces will do anything to stop him from succeeding, including murder!

It’s quite short and there’s constant, compelling action, so this could be a one-sitting read for many! :) I enjoyed it for its vivid setting, well structured plot, and the way that Mukoma Wa Ngugi manages to avoid all racist and sexist stereotypes while still telling an old-fashioned political thriller story. To make another film reference, if Alfred Hitchcock was alive and well today, I think he’d want to option this! I highly recommend this to readers who love a good plot, or are interested in international crime, and don’t mind a bit of violence and sex (I wouldn’t call this terribly *explicit*: Wa Ngugi doesn’t dwell on unnecessary detail, just that there are quite a few shoot-outs and a couple sexy scenes, although he eventually ‘fades to black’). This is a debut novel (oh, I just realised I forgot to mention that I read it thanks to Netgalley), and I’ll definitely be following Ngugi’s career!

Suggested Companion Reads

  • Black Water Rising by Attica Locke (I haven’t blogged about this, in fact I forgot to add it to my books read this year [!], but it’s another thriller based on political corruption themes that includes racial issues.)
  • Africa’s World War by Gerard Prunier (If the plot makes you want to know more about the convoluted politics of the Rwandan genocide and its aftermath, this book goes into an incredible amount of detail.)
  • All She Was Worth by Miyuki Miyabe (Another politically-based thriller, this one inspired by the Japanese credit crisis of the 90s.)
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12 Comments leave one →
  1. September 19, 2011 1:51 pm

    I am so glad to hear that you enjoyed this one, since I received a copy of it via NetGalley and have been toying with trying it at some point. I think my taste in mysteries tends to be quite similar to yours, although I don’t mind the occasional modern thriller, so the fact that this was so far from your usual fare and yet you enjoyed it so much really excites me. I admit that most of the mysteries I’ve read have been been very “white Western” in their scope, so I was intrigued by the fact that this one is set in Africa and features a black demographic instead.

  2. September 19, 2011 2:07 pm

    I have this book from NetGalley! Will definitely be trying it seeing as you enjoyed it so much.

  3. September 19, 2011 9:38 pm

    Sounds like it is definitely up my ally. Modern day crmie thrillers don’t usually do it for me, but this sounds like it has an interesting political twist that is very relevant to the modern day. I will look out for it.

  4. September 20, 2011 2:47 pm

    It’s great that African writers are taking other genres seriously. I’m yet to read it but I’d heard good things about the book which your review has confirmed. Thanks.

  5. September 20, 2011 3:32 pm

    Sounds interesting, I’m not big on thrillers but did rather enjoy the one from Nigeria I read recently, by Adimchinme Ibe, just as a bit of something different. May have to add this one to my list now too.

    • September 21, 2011 6:34 am

      I think this one was light years better than the Ibe! ;)

  6. September 20, 2011 9:10 pm

    I do like my thrillers gritty, so that plus the comparison to film The Constant Gardener, definitely has me intrigued. I hadn’t heard of this book before so thanks for the recommendation!

  7. September 21, 2011 5:07 am

    This is so weird but I just happened upon this title in my local library and checked it out last month! So glad to hear you enjoyed this. My family lived in Nairobi for 5 years (although I’d started university by then so only went to visit on holidays) and it’s been almost 15 years since they left and we’re beginning to feel a little nostalgic about Kenya, so I’m looking forward to reading this.

  8. September 21, 2011 6:18 am

    Sounds like just the sort of mystery I would enjoy. Is the author any relation to the famous Ngugi wa Thiong’o?

    • September 21, 2011 6:36 am

      Yes: his son! :) (I almost mentioned that, but then I wanted to say how I liked this book far, far more than my experience w Ngugi wa Thiong’o earlier this year due to their respective depictions of women, and it sounded a bit catty. Although apparently not too catty for a comment. LOL)

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