Nairobi Heat by Mukoma Wa Ngugi

The Blurb On The Back:

A cop from Wisconsin pursues a killer through the terrifying slums of Nairobi and the memories of genocide.

In Madison, Wisconsin, it’s a big deal when African peace activist Joshua Hakizimana – who saved hundreds of people from the Rwandan genocide – accepts a position at the university to teach about “genocide and testimony”.  Then a young woman is found murdered on his doorstep.

Local police Detective Ishmael – an African-American in an “extremely white” town – suspects the crime is racially motivated; the Ku Klux Klan still holds rallies there, after all.  But then he gets a mysterious phone call: “If you want the truth, you must go to its source.  The truth is in the past.  Come to Nairobi.”

It’s the beginning of a journey that will take him to a place still vibrating from the genocide that happened around its borders, where violence is a part of everyday life, where big-oil money rules and where the local cops shoot first and ask questions later – a place, in short, where knowing the truth about history can get you killed.  

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Detective Ishmael works in Madison, Wisconsin, an African-American policeman in a town that still has an active KKK group.  Madison’s also home to Joshua Hakizimana, the former headmaster of a Rwandan school who saved hundreds of people by offering them shelter in his school during the genocide and who is now a famed peace activist and who recently taken up a position at the local university.

When Hakizimana discovers a young woman dead on his doorstep, Ishmael heads the investigation.  The woman – blonde and beautiful – has no ID, Hakizimana doesn’t know her and media coverage doesn’t bring forward anyone who does.  All Ishmael knows is that she was asphyxiated until he gets an anonymous phone call from a man who tells him that if he wants the truth then he needs to go to Nairobi.

Given 2 weeks to see if there’s anything there that relates to Hakizimana or the girl, Ishmael teams up with Nairobi detective David ‘O’ Odhiambo but what they find takes them into the murky world of Rwandan refugees, charitable foundations and those wealthy and powerful enough to kill to keep their secrets …

Mukoma Wa Ngugi’s hard boiled crime thriller relies heavily on contrivance to keep the plot moving but is very strong both on the difficult subject of the Rwandan genocide and the complicated relationship between corporations and the charitable interests resulting from it and on what it means to be black in America and in Africa, the Kenya setting is vividly depicted and I found Ishmael to be interesting enough to want to read the sequel.

I thought Ishmael was a fascinating character with Ngugi using him to explore what it means to be an African American and how that compares with being a black man in Africa with Ishmael’s sense of dislocation – caught between two worlds – being sensitively depicted.  I enjoyed his relationship with O and how he uses O’s relationship with his wife to reflect on his own personal circumstances and failed relationships.  I was less interested in his relationship with Muddy (a Rwandan refugee turned performance poet) because the romance seemed forced, which is a shame because Muddy herself is an interesting character – complicated and damaged by her experiences while still trying to build a future for herself.

Ngugi makes interesting use of the Rwandan genocide in this book and makes some interesting points about the West’s desire for heroes and how corporate and personal interest can warp charitable purposes and the best parts of the book are where he explores that to horrific, but thought-provoking effect.  I also enjoyed his depiction of Nairobi, which is vivid and very believable – showing the extreme luxury and extreme poverty of its inhabitants.

All of this makes it such a shame that the plot is creaky with Ngugi relying heavily on contrivance to take his detectives from one clue to the next while the ending relies on such a huge improbability that I couldn’t take it seriously.

Although poor plotting is usually a deal breaker for me, there’s enough strong background here and Ishmael is an interesting enough character for me to want to check out the sequel.

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