Nairobi Heat by Mukoma Wa Ngugi (thoughts)
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.)