“Something didn’t add up-a beautiful blonde girl dead on the doorstep of an African professor. A suicide or an accidental overdose on a stranger’s front porch? No, it was too random to be random.”
If I’m going to read an international crime novel, I expect (or rather I hope), that the novel will take me outside of my environment. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I expect an international crime novel to show how crime and/or crime detection is different in that particular country.
With those ideas in mind, Nairobi Heat by Mukoma Wa Ngugi delivers big-time.
The novel begins with Madison, Wisconsin police detective, Ishmael on a flight to Kenya. That’s a long way to solve a crime that happened in Wisconsin.
Wisconsin is a predominantly white state with african-americans running at about 6% of the population. Detective Ishmael is one of the 6%, and he’s called out one night to a potentially politically explosive murder scene at Maple Bluff, the richest suburb in the state. A young white, blonde woman has been found dead from an apparent overdose, and her corpse is sprawled out on the steps of a home occupied by a university employee. But the employee isn’t just any employee–he’s Joshua Hakiziman–an international celebrity for his brave role in saving hundreds of people during the Rwandan genocide. Thanks to his fame, Hakiziman now teaches “genocide and testimony” at the university.
Hakiziman due to his humanitarian halo is, in some ways, untouchable. He claims he spent an evening enjoying cocktails with friends and came home to the body of an unknown woman on his doorstep. Detective Ishmael can’t discover any connection, but he’s troubled by the case and aware of its racial implications. Maple Bluff isn’t exactly a hotbed of crime:
On the face of it, it looked like an overdose or a suicide but not a murder. This was Maple Bluff after all–a cat up the tree, stolen stop signs, an occasional drunk and unruly grandmother visiting from upcountry perhaps, but not murder.
While Joshua appears to have nothing to hide, his calm detachment bothers Detective Ishmael:
But as I was typing little details began to bother me. The walls of the house, for example, had been empty–no paintings, no photographs. It had been like being in one huge hotel room, impersonal yet inhabited. How could he live in that house without leaving a trace of himself? But that wasn’t a crime.
Meanwhile the beautiful dead blonde goes unidentified, and pressure builds to solve the case. Then Ishmael receives an anonymous phone call urging him to come to Nairobi if he wants to discover the truth. He’s given two weeks by his police chief, and then flies to Kenya.
Nairobi is a culture shock for Ishmael. He’s teamed up with Nairobi detective David O, and Ishmael quickly learns that he’s viewed by locals (and insulted) as a white man–his ethnicity which separated him from the white detectives and the community back in Madison means nothing in Kenya. Here, life is cheap, and when it comes to ‘law enforcement,’ it’s a whole other game. Crimes take place in broad daylight with very few consequences, some areas are virtually impenetrable due to private mercenary armies or criminal gangs, and then if you’re backed into a corner and end up shooting a bunch of locals, there’s no inquiry, no investigation, and it’s back to business as usual.
On the way to uncovering the truth, Ishmael finds himself in a complex web of corruption and lies. While he’s shocked by the day-to-day lawlessness of Kenya, oddly he begins to feel that he fits in. He makes fast friends with David O and his wife and even picks up a love interest along the way to solving the Wisconsin murder. Clearly this is the beginning of a series character, and for those who like their crime set in foreign locales, Nairobi Heat is an excellent read. While Kenya’s apparent lawlessness seems to blur the lines of good and evil, in reality, Ishmael discovers that the distinction is sharp and clear.
My copy courtesy of the publisher via netgalley and read on my Kindle.