Dying to Live by Michael Stanley is the sixth crime novel to feature the humble and endearing Detective Kubu, set against the richly beautiful backdrop of Botswana.
I’m a big fan of the police procedural, and I have a special place in my reader’s heart for books in the genre that are set outside of the United States. It is utterly fascinating to read about all the ways in which cultures differ, particularly in the policing methods and protocols that make up such a large part of these novels.
Michael Stanley’s Detective Kubu series is one excellent example, showcasing the police force of Botswana. In this sixth book, the dead body of a Bushman has been found near the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. It looks like he was the elderly victim of a scuffle gone wrong, but an autopsy reveals that despite his aged exterior and brittle bones, his internal organs are those of a much younger man.
Pathologist Ian MacGregor reports this puzzle to our hero, Assistant Superintendent David “Kubu” Bengu of the Criminal Investigation Department, as a matter of interest even though the death is outside Kubu’s jurisdiction. However, when the body is stolen from the Gaborone Morgue and connections start to emerge with the case of a recently missing local witch doctor, Kubu and his team are drawn in to investigate.
Foremost of this team is Samantha Khama, the first female detective in the Botswana CID and Kubu’s protégé. She’s been assigned the witch doctor case, one she takes on reluctantly after Kubu convinces her that it’s a good opportunity to snoop around in the witch doctor’s life. What better way to gather evidence to support her suspicions of his complicity in illegal activities, after all?
Her intense dislike of witch doctors emanated from her childhood, when a friend of hers went missing and was later found dead, parts of her body having been harvested for muti—supposedly a particularly potent potion. This traumatic event was the spark that made Samantha want to join the police. And since doing so, she’d focused both on pursuing cases of missing girls, cases that were often neglected by the police, and on trying to make the police force less chauvinistic—a task of great difficulty, in which she’d had little success.
Samantha is a terrific, fully realized character whose struggles are both unique to Botswanan culture and universal to women everywhere.
I was also drawn in by the fact that even as Kubu and his team uncover a much larger net of criminal enterprise than they could have first suspected with the appearance of the anomalous corpse, things in his home life take a darker turn. Nono, the HIV+ little girl that Kubu and his wife Joy adopted after her family all passed away, starts to sicken despite the retrovirals and general good care they’ve been stringent in providing her. An increasingly desperate Joy, knowing that Kubu is investigating and coming into contact with witch doctors, abandons her faith in modern medicine to beg Kubu to find a traditional cure—one that Kubu just doesn’t believe in. This leads to a huge fight, resulting in Kubu being thrown out of the house. In confusion and grief, he turns to Ian for advice. Pragmatic Ian has a lot to say on the subject:
“What are the chances of you and Joy being happy together if Nono dies and you didn’t find muti for her? In fact, how are you going to feel if Nono dies and you haven’t tried everything? Even stuff you think is mumbo jumbo? […] You know very well that spells by witch doctors often have bad consequences for those who’ve been cursed. Can you explain that? Of course you can, and do. It’s all in the mind, you’d say. Same as muti. If it works, it’s purely psychological, you’d say. Am I right?”
“[You] think I should fake it?” Kubu asked eventually.
“Think about it, my friend. What is the downside? Joy will think you’ve done everything in your power to help, and it’s not going to affect Nono one way or the other. The only thing that will suffer is your ego—that you abandoned your principles to save your marriage.”
“I have to live with myself, Ian. I don’t want to live a lie—I’d be constantly mortified at what I had done. Principles mean a lot to me.”
“That’s codswallop!” Ian continued. “I’ve seen you having very malleable principles when it comes to solving a case. Stretching the truth here, embellishing the facts there, to get a confession. Get real, laddie.”
It is these struggles between pragmatism and principle as well as between tradition and modernity that make Dying to Live more than your average international police procedural. Michael Stanley has written an excellent look at modern-day Botswana with a compelling cast of characters and a range of experiences that bring the country vividly to life. This series is definitely on my to-read list, and if you want an entertaining, intelligent series that provides insight into life in Botswana, I’d highly recommend adding it to yours too.
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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.
Read all posts by Doreen Sheridan for Criminal Element.