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"The hyena moved off when the men shouted. It stood about fifty yards away, watching them with its head low between powerful shoulders, wary, not fearful, waiting for its chance to retake the field. The men stood in silence, staring at what the hyena had been eating."
An enticing first sentence for a thriller, who wouldn't want to read on? The hyena takes the reader to Africa, to the Kalahari desert in Botswana as we later learn. In the following paragraph the leftovers of the hyena's meal are described in gruesome detail. The two men from a nearby camp in a game reserve can see that they belong to a white man but that's about it. The head of the corpse lies beside the body, it has no teeth, one leg is missing and the lower half of one arm seems to have been hacked off. (Many weeks later it turns up at a beach in South Africa, not putrefied at all but looking as if it had been bitten off by a shark the day before) Who can it be? No white man has been reported missing.
Assistant Superintendent David Bengu, aka Kubu, from the Botswana Criminal Investigation Department gets the case. His investigations take him to the Botswana Cattle and Mining Company run by the state and the Hofmayr family in collaboration. He doesn't have only professional interest in the family but also a personal one. Angus Hofmayr is the schoolmate who gave him the nickname Kubu. He's to inherit control of the company on his (imminent) 30th birthday. Kubu digs up unpleasant facts about the organisation of the business hitherto run by an uncle and dark family secrets. How they tie together and enlighten the mysterious death in the Kalahari desert forms the body of the thriller.
Botswana, again. Why have the authors Michael Sears, a mathematician, and Stanley Trollip, a professor in educational psychology, who write together under the nom de plume Michael Stanley chosen this country? After all, they're both South Africans and in South Africa more people are murdered in one day than in Botswana in a year. Michael Sears, "Botswana has always been a special favourite with its magnificent conservation areas, dramatic scenery, and varied peoples. A long-held ambition was to capture the flavour of the country as the canvass of a novel."
Of course, after Alexander McCall Smith's detective series set in Botswana featuring Mma Precious Ramotswe and her Detective Agency every other thriller set in this country is compared to his. Sears and Trollip see the country more realistically in my opinion. It is true that Botswana has a stable democratic, parliamentary government and a stable economy based on diamond and mineral mining and tourism to the game resorts, but it's also true that the AIDS rate is 24.8% (according to information on the net). In McCall Smith's novels this sad fact is sort of blanked out whereas in A Carrion Death it's included. Kubu's wife works in an Aids Clinic. We also learn about the bushmen, the San, the native inhabitants of Southern Africa. Their way of life and the problems they have in modern Botswana are mentioned, their knowledge adds to the solution of the murder mystery.
What I also like is that the plot is firmly based in the realities of the country, namely its striking nature and the mining business. I can't say that mining is a special interest of mine but I liked reading about it - and learnt interesting terms, for example 'diamondiferous'. One never knows when such knowledge may become useful. The core of the plot is based on one of the few triggers there are since the beginning of writing. (There are different ways of counting, but nobody has enumerated more than 36 plot varieties as yet).
It's obvious that the authors were thinking of starting a series when writing A Carrion Death, and a series must have a main protagonist who can carry several stories. They did come up with an original character by creating Assistant Superintendent David Bengu, aka Kubu. Kubu is the Setswana (the language of Botswana) term for hippopotamus. One can see this as a metaphor for his character, the hippopotamus seems to be a docile creature but is one of the deadliest on the continent. But as this nickname was bestowed on the boy by a schoolmate, this interpretation is a bit too far fetched. He got it because he was already fat then and it stuck because he grew up into a fat adult. When we get to know him, he's 34 years old, weighs 300 pounds and thinks continuously of food and when his next meal will be. His wife wants to talk him into dieting, but when he's in hospital, she brings him a piece of chocolate cake. Odd. I concede that Kubu is a new and original addition to the league of crime solving characters, but I can't take to him. I'm not attracted to obese people who aren't ill but only gluttonous and have eaten themselves into the shape they are. If this is not PC, so be it.
His hobbies have obviously been created as a counterpoint to his physical enormity, he's a connoisseur of French wines and loves opera, especially the ones by Mozart. He knows all arias by heart and sings them in his car when driving to far away places. He's a loving husband and an exceptionally good son to his traditional parents, he and his wife visit them every Sunday. Before I found out that he's 34, I guessed he was fiftyish. I can't help it but I find him a bit boring, in literature goodies aren't just as fascinating as baddies. (Sometimes this is also true in real life).
So how does the cooperation between the two authors work? I can't say that I've found two different voices and who has written what, but I've found a lazy editor. Too often things are repeated which makes the book very long (The hardback edition has 462 pages). An example: The cars belonging to the mining company are all yellow so that they can be seen from the air in case they get lost in the desert. No idea why this has to be mentioned twice. Worse is that occurrences are narrated in the third person perspective and later rehashed elaborately in conversations instead of summing them up. A reviewer on Amazon has also deplored this fact and mentioned that the authors do this in the second instalment of the series, too. Not good.
Then there's the thread concerning one of the two men who find the mutilated corpse in the desert. He's an ecologist, i.e., a rational scientist. He has strange encounters with a traditional medicine man, a witch doctor, which shake him to the core. I thought this would somehow also lead to the solution of the murders (in the end seven people are dead) but it just peters out.
A further niggle is the lay-out of the book. The chapters are short, sometimes only a page long. There are 80 (!) chapters altogether, each chapter begins with a thick black number and three black lines underneath which interrupt the flow of reading considerably. The chapters are divided into ten parts for which the authors have found quotes from Shakespeare plays. Sheer showing-off if you ask me.
Yet, all in all I like A Carrion Death because of the well elaborated setting and the insights into a country I knew next to nothing about.