Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Murder in Ghana: An Ideal Marriage of Suspense and Location with the ‘Wife of the Gods’

Kwei Quartey's compelling debut mystery, 'Wife of the Gods', introduces Ghanian Detective Inspector Darko Dawson investigating the murder of a medical student in a village some distance from his home (and jurisdiction) in the country's capital of Accra.

The crime is unusual and the government authorities have requested help from the capital, whose forensic knowledge far exceeds that of the local police force. The victim has no obvious injuries and is found posed as if sleeping in the woods. Dawson, however, has mixed feelings about accepting the assignment and returning to the village of Ketanu. He has been there only once, over 25 years ago, to visit his aunt and uncle. On a later visit, when just his mother went, she disappeared on returning home. Whether she is alive or dead, no one knows. Still, the case interests him and he's certain that the young man, who has been arrested for the crime, is innocent. He's equally certain that another popular sentiment in the village is also not true, that a purported witch living nearby struck her down using herbal magic.

'Wife of the Gods' is written with a quiet elegance, often lyrical in its narrative. Sound actually plays an important part of the story, Dawson having a particular affinity for distinguishing subtle variations in speech patterns. Consider this passage from early in the book:

Darko felt the silken quality and the musical lilt of Auntie's voice. He had always had a peculiarly heightened sensitivity to speech. Not only did he hear it but he often perceived it, as though physically touching it. He had on occasion told [his brother] Cairo or Mama that he could feel "bumps" in a person's voice, or that it was prickly or wet. They were mystified by this, but Darko could not explain it any better than he could describe the process of sight or smell.

The mystery itself is rather intricate, made so in part by the customs and beliefs of the villagers. The author incorporates these cultural references into the story in a seamless, natural manner; they are a part of Dawson's investigation without necessarily being the cause of it. Furthermore, their very being is not a hinderance and Dawson's knowledge of them may help him find the solution to the young woman's murder.

There are a number of familiar elements to the story including the wise mentor to Dawson. At one point he says to Darko, "You remember what I told you about solving mysteries?", to which Dawson replies, "That it's a matter of making a few of the connections and the rest will fall in place." And that is really what 'Wife of the Gods' is all about.

An outstanding effort overall to be sure, but there are a couple of minor points that may resonate with readers. Darko Dawson is given to occasional, violent outbursts which seem at odds to the intellectual character that he seems most comfortable being. These scenes don't really add much depth or interest to his character, and seem discordant in a somewhat disturbing way. And the investigation seems to conveniently ignore a person's cell phone, and not the throwaway kind, that is the preferred way of communicating within the country — not surprising given the lack of infrastructure for wired service. Yet no one thinks to check cell phone records to determine where people (read suspects) might have been at any given time. Finally, the title, which rates a special author note, is not terribly relevant to the crime or its solution, and serves more as an introduction to a tangential subplot. These comments, however, are at most quibbles for this truly remarkable mystery that unfolds in a most unusual setting.

Review Copyright © 2009 — Hidden Staircase Mystery Books

Before setting out on my journey to neighbouring Togo, i make a relatively painless trip to the Togolese embassy in Accra for my entry visa (10,000CFA for a single entry 30 day visa).

Actually getting to my next destination is also fairly straight forward as there are bush taxis everywhere in Accra. These are basically four door cars, with four people in the back, and two sharing the front.

These are mainly reconstituted European cars with the seats stripped out and benches added in. I select a battered Peogeut 505 which still retains its back seats, and negotiate with the driver to have the taxi to myself for a reasonable $20 (it is usually $5 per person).

From Accra we head straight to Lomé, capital of Togo, on the pleasantly paved and un-bumpy Trans African Coastal Highway that crosses Togo, connecting it to Benin and Nigeria to the east, and Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire to the west.

Thus I arrive fairly un-dishevelled for my stopover courtesy of ‘Letters From Togo’ by Susan Blake...

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