Talking Location with author Abi Curtis – Istanbul
Crime mystery set in Botswana, plus we chat to the authors
19th June 2016
Deadly Harvest by Michael Stanley, crime mystery set in Botswana.
A well paced mystery that circles around as the clues come together, the darkness of illicit practices unfurls like the smoke from a witch’s cauldron. There is more than a nod to Macbeth in the book, set against a rich Botswana background.
Intriguingly behind the story is writer duo, Stanley Trollip and Michael Sears, combining to make Michael Stanley. I have often pondered how 2 writers can work on one book (and I pose my curious questions about the process below); it is, in fact, more common than one might think. Take for example, another writer double act, who together produce excellent crime mysteries under the name of Nicci French set around the UK.
Botswana for many of us is a country originally brought to life in the stories of Mma Ramotswe in The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith and this book too has a similar thoughtfulness in the telling, but a much much darker heart. “Muti” is a traditional medicine that usually relies on the ingredients found in the plant – occasionally animal – kingdom, but there still exists the abhorrent tradition of harvesting human body parts to make potions for individuals who seek power and strength in their lives. Hence the title Deadly Harvest. Gradually Assistant Superintendent David ‘Kubu’ Bengu, together with Samantha Khama on her first gritty assignment in the police force, come to the realisation that missing girls and an albino potentially all have one thing in common, but tracking the witch doctor down at the heart of the operation, is a minefield. Superstition still holds a very powerful sway in society and people just do not want to risk crossing such a powerful person – the person is someone who, it is mooted, can see into the very heart and soul of the people around him and can punish any chosen victim at the drop of a hat. A truly scary phenomenon. But who is the witch doctor and how will they discover the identity?
It is indeed a dark and colourful story, that is gripping, yet moves at a pace that allows for assimilation of the latest clues. Botswana makes for a strong and at times captivating backdrop, mainly in Gabarone, and out to Mochudi.
Tina for the TripFiction Team
Over to the two authors, who have agreed to answer our questions:
TF: I was intrigued to find that Michael Stanley is actually a writing duo, comprising Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. How did you both first decide on this writing strategy together and how do you manage the writing process? How, for example did you both choose Botswana as setting, how do you settle on the names (and what areas are harder to negotiate in the writing process when two of you are involved?)?
MS: We come from academic backgrounds and in that environment we’ve both collaborated with other researchers. Stanley has written several co-authored textbooks, Michael has published many research papers almost all with other people. So when we had an idea for a crime novel, it was natural for us to write it together. Since it was our first foray into fiction, we didn’t realize that it was unusual to write a novel that way.
Names are generally not a problem, but we do take some care to make them pronounceable to western readers. Calling a character Mosielele Seihetlheng, for example, (actual Setswana names) makes it really hard for the reader to relate to the character. However, our protagonist’s name, Kubu Bengu, is easy. In reality, it doesn’t matter if readers’ can’t pronounce the names accurately, as long as they can ‘say’ them in their minds.
As to our writing process in general, we both research, write, and edit. We brainstorm plot and characters together. And we spend time together exploring new settings in wonderful parts of southern Africa. It could be worse! We don’t think any part of the process is particularly hard for us. Of course we have disagreements, but their resolution almost always improves the book. The real sticking points are usually around a few words that make no difference to anyone but us!
TF: How did you come to choose Botswana as the backdrop for this novel?
MS: The reason we chose Botswana as the setting for the first novel in the series was because our premise was that a body is found thrown out for hyenas. Hyenas eat everything – flesh and bone – and so this was the perfect way to remove a body from the reach of forensics. However, that concept required isolated, open spaces where wildlife is in abundance; Botswana qualifies, but not really South Africa these days.
Deadly Harvest centres on the use of body parts in magic potions (muti) and the lengths that witch doctors will go to obtain them. This is a distressingly real issue everywhere in sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, Amnesty International is currently mounting a campaign directed at the murder of albinos in Malawi for muti.
There’s an infamous case of a young girl murdered for muti in Botswana that was never solved despite the government eventually requesting assistance from Scotland Yard. It was brought to our attention by Tabathu Mulale, then director of the Criminal Investigation Department in Gaborone. He challenged us to find out about it and to write a novel around it. Deadly Harvest is the result, loosely based on that case. To carry the story, we introduced Samantha Khama as the first female detective in the Botswana CID, and made her a friend of the girl murdered in the real case.
TF: Muti features heavily in the book, how did you go about researching this practise? There is a very dark side…..
Apart from the meeting with Director Mulale, we’ve spoken to social anthropologists and a variety of people in Botswana, and read about the subject extensively. One of the people we consulted was Unity Dow, currently minister of education, who is a novelist and also wrote a book around muti murders – The Screaming of the Innocent.
TF: This book is part of a series. Do you have a sense of how many books you would like to see in the Detective Kubu series? What further areas of research do you envisage undertaking for future titles?
MS: An interesting question! We seem to have so many ideas that we don’t see Kubu retiring any time soon. Every time we have an idea, it leads to its own area of research and intriguing questions. For example, in the Kubu mystery coming out next year – Dying to Live – the story starts with the discovery of a very old Bushman who has been murdered. But the pathologist discovers something very strange. Despite his walnut-wrinkled skin and white hair, the Bushman has young internal organs. The pathologist finds an old bullet lodged in the man’s abdomen. How come there’s no entry scar? What is its calibre, and can one tell after so many years? What would be the effect of that lead in his body for so long? Can one tell if it’s a bullet from a black-powder cartridge? Can you tell how old someone is when he dies? Also, we needed to visit New Xade, the town built for the Bushmen who were relocated from the Kalahari. It’s a sad place. Research in Botswana isn’t always fun.
TF: The book has a very striking cover, both composition and the choice of colour. How much were the two of you involved in its design?
MS: Orenda Books has an excellent cover artist, Mark Swan, who has a great eye for colour and design. But Stanley actually came up with idea of using an abstract of an African mask as the centrepiece. We first tried that idea out for our next book, A Death in the Family (which will be released in the UK in July), and we and the Orenda team were thrilled with the result. After further exchanges of ideas, Mark came up with the final design of this cover. It’s probably our favourite cover to date of all our books.
TF: What is next for you, both jointly and individually?
MS: Stanley is in Minneapolis enjoying summer, while Michael is settling into winter in South Africa. But we’ll be back in the UK in July for Theakstons Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival. We’ve been invited to be on a panel there with three excellent authors who set their books in southern Africa, so we’re greatly looking forward to that. We’ll also be launching A Death in the Family in the UK in July, so you’ll be able to compare the covers and see which one you prefer. Beyond that, Dying to Live will be out next year and we’re very excited about that book.
Finally, Stanley is co-editing with Annamaria Alfieri a book of short stories by a group of wonderful authors. The book is called Sunshine Noir and is designed to push back a little on the tsunami of Nordic mysteries, in which the sky is grey and the sun rarely seen. Stanley likes to say that the shadows are darkest where the sun is hottest, so readers should look to hot climes for their noir. It will be out later this year.
Thank you so much to both of you for answering our questions!
For more books to transport you to Botswana, just click here!