When a blonde girl is found murdered on the porch of an African university professor in Madison, Wisconsin, hard-working detective Ishmael Fofona knows immediately that it will be the news event of the year. What he cannot know however is that the discovery of the dead girl will change his life forever
Barely seventy-two hours after being called to the scene, he finds himself on African soil, hunting for clues in a case that seemingly makes no sense. Why would Joshua Hakizimana—a hero of the Rwandan genocide, a man who saved hundreds of people from the machetes of the genocidaires—kill a random White girl and then dump her body outside his house? The answers, it would seem, lie in Africa. And there is only one way to get at them.
Mukoma wa Ngugi’s Nairobi Heat is a hardboiled novel that I could easily imagine as a Hollywood movie, though with considerably more moral complexity than most movies manage. Usually when there are “buddy” detectives from two wildly different backgrounds, one is clearly the lead and the other the sidekick. I really appreciated that not only do both detectives have their own strengths, the “sidekick” had quite a few things to teach the narrator.
Picture this: two detectives, one an African-American, the other his philosophical Kenyan counterpart; the busy streets of Nairobi, referred to by a local cop as “Nairobbery”; the elaborate country house of a rich white man who hunted two Africans like animals; a beautiful woman with a terrible past who falls for the hero; a multimillion dollar charity to benefit survivors of the Rwandan genocide. All that and plenty of philosophy amid the flying bullets and slashing knives.
The story begins in Madison, Wisconsin, where African-American police detective Ishmael Fofona (“Call me Ishmael”) is assigned a case in which a dead young white woman is found on the doorstep of an African professor, Joshua Hakizimana. The professor is world-famous as a result of saving a thousand lives in the Rwandan genocide, and now serves as the face of a multimillion dollar charity to prevent future genocides. A mysterious phone call sends Ishmael to Kenya, where the charity is centered. There he meets David Odhiambo, called “O,” a local detective who is his guide to all things African, or at least Kenyan. In Nairobi, Ishmael must maneuver through a criminal world in which life is cheap and policing, correspondingly, does not always have the luxuries afforded by American laws.
“…I started believing [only] in justice I could see. We live in anarchy; life is cheap and the rich and the criminals can buy a whole lot of it. Meantime, someone has to be on the side of justice…Maybe what I do matters, maybe it doesn’t, I don’t know.”
Ishmael’s reasons for becoming a cop seem almost shallow in comparison.
“I didn’t want to become part of the black middle class with aspirations of whiteness—piano lessons and debutante balls. I had seen that world and didn’t like it one little bit, so I had opted out and become a cop…to my mind I was more of myself than I would ever have been being black on someone else’s terms. A paradox, but then what in life isn’t?”
…“How do you feel being here? I mean, here in Kenya ... as a black man from America?”
Now that was a tough question. “Look, man, I like to keep it simple,” I began. “I like you, but I like your wife better. I like the food and the beer, but I detest Mathare and whatever it is that keeps people there. I hate your city, with its skyscrapers that are trying to reach the white man’s kingdom, and I sure as hell hate your justice system. How do I feel? I want to find my killer and bring him to justice...that’s all.”
Ishmael might think he’s just looking for a killer, but not for long. Soon he’s reassessing his own identity and place in the world as well. For once, the American character doesn’t have all the answers, and I found that to be a really compelling addition to the classic hardboiled plotline.
Victoria Janssen is the author of three erotic novels and numerous short stories. Her latest novel is The Duke and The Pirate Queen from Harlequin Spice. Follow her on Twitter: @victoriajanssen or find out more at victoriajanssen.com.