Hour of the Red God by Richard Crompton is a debut novel set in Kenya (available May 7, 2013).
In Richard Crompton’s Hour of the Red God, a woman is found mutilated in Uhuru Park, a normally peaceful gathering place in Nairobi, Kenya. Former Massai warrior and now-detective Mollel is called on to the case. Mollel, with his fine-tuned sense for justice, is determined to discover what happened to this young woman, regardless of her profession or her tribal affiliation.
The other investigating officers assume the murder is just the bad-end of a prostitution lifestyle. They also consider the possibility this is a female circumcision gone wrong, since the Massai still maintain the practice when women come of age. Mollel, unwilling to accept these explanations, follows the clues—through sewers, along back streets and alleys—all the way up to Nairobi’s upper classes.
One of the immediately intriguing parts of Hour of the Red God is the sense of place. Crompton has turned pre-election 2007 Nairobi into a character all its own. Filled with enough crime, corruption, and political maneuvering to rival any New York or Washington, D.C. setting, Crompton establishes that this is no New York in the opening sequence, as Mollel chases a purse snatcher through the marketplace:
Taking up an entire city block, with more ways in and out than a hyrax burrow, on a day like this the market’s dark interior is thronged with shoppers escaping the sun. Mollel considers yelling Stop, mwizi! or Police!—but calculates that this would lose him precious time. The thief leaps up the steps and deftly vaults a pile of fish guts, pauses a moment to look back —showing, Mollel thinks, signs of tiring—and dives into the dark interior. Mollel’s gaunt frame is just a few seconds behind, his heart pounding as he gulps lungfuls of air even as his stomach rebels at the powerful reek of fish.
Not only is Nairobi a well-established locale, but Crompton also creates a great sense of how the Nairobi police department functions—which is mostly corruptly and short-handed. It’s clear there is no backup. Mollel beats feet with his partner, plunging through sewers, canvassing neighborhoods, interviewing witnesses, and doing all the grunt work that generally is ‘assigned’ in other police procedurals. For example, when Mollel and his partner, Kiunga, get a lead on a witness, and they have to do something that a lot of other fictional police don’t have to do: wait.
—Now, if this was a movie, says Kiunga, I’d pick up my radio, put out an APB, get the driver’s name off the central computer, have him hand delivered to Central for questioning.
—Yep, says Mollel. But this is Nairobi. And we don’t have a radio, can’t put out an APB, and getting his name means waiting until Monday morning, going down to the motor vehicle licencing office, and hoping the clerk there will be in a good enough mood to fetch the card for you rather than making you go through the files yourself.
Mollel does the work, and the reader benefits for it. Watching Mollel in action is wonderful. He’s a cop, a father, a warrior, and an elder. But above all, he searches for justice. He follows the clues. If that means he has to face down a powerful religious leader, or question a tribal elder, or rebel against his superintendent, he will do it. And he does. Sometimes that’s likeable. And sometimes, such as when he leaves his kid in a strange shop for a couple hours, it’s not-so-likeable.
And Mollel is not the only character with a complex past. Even the side characters get powerful histories. Superglue Sammy is an informant who Mollel interviews early on in the novel, and Crompton describes how Sammy’s mother superglued his eyes shut in order to gain sympathy for begging:
The child—then a boy of six—was taken away. The good doctors found the skin of his eyelids fused to his corneas, some said because of the glue; others suggested a prenatal infection…they sent him back to Kibera, but his mother was not there anymore. She’d become so lonely without Sammy that she’d downed a bottle of the illegal local spirits, chang’aa, poured all her glue into a plastic bag, and stuck her head into it.
Hour of the Red God is an ultimately moving novel. Crompton’s story is complex, with layers upon layers, from family, to tribe, to society, to religion. All of these elements play a role in this story, which at its heart, is about the questions of justice: What is justice? Who delivers it? And what are the consequences if it never happens?
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Jenny Maloney is a reader and writer in Colorado. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in 42 Magazine, Shimmer, Skive, and others. She blogs about writing at Notes from Under Ground. If you like to talk books, reading, publishing, movies, or writing feel free to follow her on Twitter: @JennyEMaloney.