This article is part of our Holiday Reads 2013 series. The Honey Guide is Michael Logan’s recommendation. Michael won Terry Pratchett First Novel Award prize for Apocalypse Cow, just published in paperback.
I don’t know what it is about sitting on a beach beneath a baking sun, surrounded by cavorting holidaymakers, that makes my thoughts turn to murder. I’m not talking about actually killing the over-muscled gentleman thrusting his bulging speedos in my face as he retrieves a casually tossed Frisbee, although I’m pretty sure no court would convict me if I did. I’m talking about burying my nose in a crime thriller to avoid such sights.
Last month, as I holidayed in Zanzibar, I was lucky enough to have a copy of The Honey Guide by Richard Crompton to shield my bleeding eyes. Set in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, where I live, this enthralling and wonderfully written debut brings the city to life in all its contradictions.
Mr. Crompton’s book is a back-to-basics detective novel, in which the main protagonist Mollel—a Masai cop whose wife died in the US Embassy bombing in 1998—tracks the murderer of a prostitute through old-fashioned legwork. This old school sleuthing is a result of the Kenyan police force’s limited access to modern techniques such as advanced forensics and computerized databases. Even the guns look so rickety you wonder if they would ever fire—which is probably a good thing, as they are often wafted barrel-first at your head by the officer sitting next to you on a bumpy bus. Complicating the investigation is the violence that erupted following disputed 2007 presidential elections. As the nation descends into chaos, Mollel finds himself sucked into corruption and vote rigging.
Mollel himself is a fascinating character. While he has the demons that seem to be obligatory in this genre, his are not the hackneyed issues of failed relationships and alcohol. Rather, he is struggling with the loss of his wife, his status as the hero who plucked dozens of survivors from the rubble of the embassy, and his relationship with his son.
The novel is meticulously plotted and keeps the reader guessing as to the identity of the killer until late on. The writing leans toward the literary. Not a word is misplaced as Mr. Crompton paints a vivid picture of a capital city in which sprawling mansions and sparkling malls exist cheek-by-jowl with grinding poverty. Not that he lingers on this poverty: the energy and drive of the entrepreneurial and forward-looking Kenyan people comes through strongly.
While having the aforementioned literary bent—from the opening scene where Mollel dispenses justice to a bag snatcher via a thumping kick to the nuts, to the climactic scene amidst a bloody riot—the story zips along with pace and verve.
This is the first in a series, and the blurb says that Mr. Crompton will do for Nairobi what Ian Rankin did for Edinburgh. All the signs are there that this may prove to be no idle boast.
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