When I first came across a book from the author Thomas H Cook, I read that he is known for writing cerebral crime novels. That description got my attention, for while I thoroughly enjoy a good crime novel, I prefer my crime reads to be a little off-the-well-beaten track with more time spent on the why rather than the how. A Dancer in the Dust, my third Cook novel so far, concerns a murder that takes place in New York, and the novel begins with its narrator, Ray Campbell, returning to the African country of Lubanda as part of an unofficial investigation. Decades earlier, Ray, an idealistic Aid worker lived in Lubanda and fell in love with Martine, a female farmer. We don’t know the details of what happened, but we do know, within a few pages, that the western-supported president of Lubanda was deposed in a bloody coup led by the psychotic Abbo Mafumi who called himself “the Lion of God and Emperor of All Peoples.” Ray left his idealistic past far behind wrapped up in his memories of Lubanda, and now he works as a New York based risk management consultant. Ray lives in a “risk aversive world,” but all that changes when he’s contacted by Bill Hammond, a man he knew in Lubanda who now runs a charity trust.
He was now at the top of the heap, the Mansfield Trust being a kind of holding company for a large number of charitable institutions and NGOs. At its recommendation, billions in aid might or might not pour into an particular country.
With the death of Mafumi, Lubanda is again about to start receiving billions in aid money, but before Bill makes his decision to begin sinking money into Lubanda, there’s a “loose end” that bothers him. He’d been contacted by Seso, a refugee from Lubanda, now an African street vendor in New York. Seso asked for a meeting with Bill, but before that takes place, Seso is tortured and murdered Mafumi style. Bill asks Ray to assess the risk of giving money to the newly established Lubanda government by investigating the death of Seso, who was Ray’s employee in Lubanda twenty years earlier….
So here we have our crime, the murder of a penniless African that takes place in New York. In due course, Ray finds himself on a plane back to Lubanda and all the painful memories he’s shoved aside come flooding back.
Everything had gone wrong. The three Cs of devastation: corruption, crime, chaos. Add the rampant spread od AIDS to that mix and the road to hell was fully paved. Of course, it was easy to lay all this at the foot of that fourth demonic C, colonialism.
The death of Seso is just the first crime in the book. Other crimes include reference to the atrocities of Belgian colonial rule in the Congo (Martine is of Belgian descent), and of course there’s also the bloody takeover of Lubanda by a psycho dictator who unleashes his frenzied army on the entire population. But at the heart of the novel is the story of yet another crime–Ray’s betrayal of Martine. Martine was born in Lubanda and so she considers herself Lubandan, yet when the political climate in the country shifts, Martine, who is white, is in the crosshairs of both the government that wants to grab her land, and the forces of Mafumi who want to see her destroyed. Ray is told to persuade Martine into accepting the government demand that she abandon growing crops that support the local economy and culture, and instead move to a crop that is supported by western aid.Ray’s best intentions lead to a horrific chain of events, and in a world in which there’s no room for principles, Ray spies on Martine and reports back her activities while Martine stands her ground and takes the ultimate risk.
While this is the story of how one man made some really bad decisions, in many ways in his relationship with Martine, Ray is a symbol of western colonialism and exploitation of Africa. He wants Martine and is capable of doing some very underhand sneaky stuff to get his way, all in the name of the ‘best intentions.’ In the final analysis, he doesn’t understand Martine at all, and his desire for her blinds him to everything else. Ray’s self-serving plans backfire and lead to destruction. While he wants ‘what’s best’ for Martine, we can’t forget that this is a white American putting himself into the voting position of deciding what is best for Lubanda & what is ‘best’ for Martine when his stake in the country’s future is non-existent; he’s just a man passing through while Martine’s family has owned the farm for over 50 years. The morally complex plot examines many issues and on a meta level, the novel questions the well-worn model for African aid which breeds a system of unhealthy dependence.
A Dancer in the Dust has an elegiac tone laced with regret and memory. The novel questions the risk we take when taking a moral stand, and yet compromise is also not without risk. In spite of the fact that Ray is obviously damaged and never recovered from the decisions he made in Lubanda, he’s hard to like. There’s something a bit slippery about Ray and his actions, and while the novel doesn’t overwork this aspect of the plot, it’s there beneath the surface. The plot is occasionally heavy on metaphors & similes which weigh the novel down unnecessarily–the slow style conveys the moral heft of Ray’s decisions, and the metaphor/simile embellishments make the narrative voice sound pompous rather than sincere–although this may be the author’s intention. Ray, a morally rubbery man has managed to live with his actions and feels guilty about his choices while somehow skirting the essential core of desiring Martine so much, he was willing to destroy her.