Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Death of the Mantis by Michael Stanley - Book Review

After reading the Prologue and the first couple of chapters of Michael Stanley's entertaining police procedural Death of the Mantis, I thought maybe I'd found a southern African equivalent of Tony Hillerman.  Hillerman's ability to know and interpret Navajo society, character, mores, and ways showed his deep understanding and reflected his many years of working to know the people about whom he was writing.  Through the series of novels he created., readers came to believe the Navajo world he'd created came close to the reality.  Stanley's novel, set in and around Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, a vast desert area in southwestern Botswana, and touching Namibia, just north of South Africa, captures the heat, desolation, danger, and mystique of this land inhabited only by the diminutive people known as Bushmen.  This is the third in a series known as Detective Kubu Mysteries. It is not necessary to have read the preceding two books to enjoy Death of the Mantis fully.

The Prologue depicts a child named Gobiwasi being initiated into the rites and secrets of his Bushman heritage by his father.  They go on a quest to a mysterious cave glittering with lights twinkling in the firelight. The boy takes a mysterious powder after two or three days of fasting, lies down to sleep, and meets the spirits who lead the life of his people.  We know, of course, we'll meet him later.

Bushmen in the Kalahari Dessert

A provincial Park policeman named Monzo is missing.  While not liked or missed by much of anybody at their headquarters office, an investigation must be conducted. An officer named Lareko is assigned, goes to visit the nearly dead body of Monzo in the desert wastes, where he finds him surrounded by three Bushmen trying to revive him with some of their precious water.  Lareko jumps to the conclusion that they're merely covering their own tracks and are the people who assaulted Monzo, who dies before reaching the hospital.  Case closed. Or is it?  Assistant Superintendent in the Botswana Criminal Investigation Department David "Kubu" Bengu, thinks something is out of place and convinces his supervisor to permit him to continue the investigation.  Soon his old school friend Khumanego, an educated Bushman living away from the dessert and working as an advocate for his people, arrives, complaining bitterly that an injustice is being done based on prejudice against his primitive people. And so the mystery begins.

The Kalahari Dessert
Kubu, whose name is the word for hippopotamus in his native language, given to him because of his size, had gone to school with Khumanego, where they became close friends as each was an outcast. Khmanego had taught Kubu to understand and love the desert and the place of the Bushmen in it.  When Kubu was prevailed upon by his long lost friend, he decides to try to set things right. Kubu is a complex and intriguing character. He's fat and physically indolent, eating all the time, and easily rationalizing his eating in order to maintain his comfort. At the same time, he's intellectually curious and doggedly persistent in pursuit of criminals.  He's recently married to Joy and has a new baby.  Kubu deeply appreciates the cultures of southern Africa while having, in many ways, a modern eurocentric viewpoint. He loves grand opera and is a connoisseur of fine wines and gourmet food.  At the same time, he's concerned that his sister-in-law get the proper bridal price in cows.  He doesn't seem confused about the conflict of traditional and contemporary values. Rather, he appreciates both, living in the world of contemporary police procedure (DNA, aerial reconnaisance, GPS, satellite phones, etc.) and the traditional lifestyle of the Bushmen.  On this reading, my introduction to Kubu, I'm uncertain whether his language, which seems mannered and artificial to me, is a result of excellent writing capturing the tone of modern southern Africans or wooden writing.

Michael Stanley
Michael Sears & Stanley Trollip
 Michael Stanley is the pen name adopted by two South African writers named Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. Both are retired university professors with deep interests in nature and African wildlife combined with their experience in flying small planes. During the most difficult times of the apartheid era, each spent much time out of South Africa, although Trollip was an anti-apartheid activist.  Sears is a mathematician specializing in aerial imaging who spent some time doing geological studies in the diamond industry. Trollip is an educational psychologist with a specialization in educational applications on the computer. He was instrumental in the growth of Capella University, an online school.  Death of the Mantis is their third novel.

While my hopes of encountering an African Hillerman were not met by this title, the effort to present the culture of southern Africa in Botswana succeeds, at least partially.  Cultural conflicts are shown with understanding and a good deal of sympathy.  The harsh desert environment of the Kalahari both threatens and beckons, its call to the adventurous clear.  Detective Kubu is a character the reader wants to know better and to follow in his adventures. Dialogue in the book is neither as lively nor as immediate as are the descriptions of nature.  I'd wish for a clearer, more vivid depiction of Kubu's home and office environment beyond the heat and sweat.  Domestic scenes in this novel are simply not convincing.  Perhaps a deeper immersion in detective fiction writing and continued work within the genre will yield a more engaging style. Meanwhile, Death of the Mantis has its pleasures, not the least of which are Kubu himself and his confrontation with the real dangers of survival in the Kalahari Desert.
Death of the Mantis by Michael Stanley is a 2011 publication by Harper.  The book was provided to me by the publisher through TLC Book Tours.