Set in Ghana, this is the first in a series featuring Detective Inspector Darko Dawson.
Gladys Mensah is found dead in the forest near Ketanu. Her body, seemingly untouched, is discovered by Efia, a trokosi or a “wife of the gods”. In reality, Efia is one of the wives of Togbe Adzima, the local priest.
Gladys was a promising medical student and had been visiting the village to teach people about AIDS. She was not afraid to voice her opinions, which brought her into conflict with Adzima when she complained about his practice of taking young women as wives, ostensibly to help the girl’s family expiate for a sin. People believe that Gladys was killed by spirits summoned by Adzima.
However, the local inspector, Max Fiti, who “had great significance in a place that had little”, makes up his mind quickly about who is responsible: a young man called Samuel Boateng. But Timothy Sowah, programme director of the AIDS service that Gladys worked for, asks the Minister of Health to get someone more senior to investigate. The upshot is that DI Dawson, who speaks Ewe, the local language, is sent to Ketanu.
Dawson, however, has unfinished business in Ketanu, something that has haunted him for a long time. When he was a child, his mother disappeared on a visit to her sister Osewa who lives there. She was never found.
His arrival stirs things up. Fiti is not pleased about someone from Accra muscling in on his investigation, especially because Dawson is unconvinced of Samuel Boateng’s guilt. When Dawson learns of the heated argument between Gladys and Adzima, his suspicions fall on the priest. Fiti is afraid of antagonizing Adzima: as an intermediary between humans and the gods, he could be a dangerous enemy.
As Dawson uncovers the tensions brewing beneath the surface, will he also find out what happened to his mother?
Kwei Quartey brings to life a place that is caught between modernity and tradition. This is not just demonstrated by the disagreement between Gladys and Adzine, but touches Dawson’s personal life. His six-year-old son has a hole in his heart, and the couple are trying to save money for the operation to fix it. But his mother-in-law thinks they’re wasting time trying to find the money and wants to take him to a traditional healer, something that the couple oppose.
Quartey gives Dawson has a strange gift: he is able to visualize people’s voices. Fiti’s voice is “coarse and sticky, like freshly laid asphalt”, while the voice of Timothy Sowah is “gentle but resilient, like the sensation of soft, wet grass on bare feet”. Because he is so attuned to the timbre and tone of the voice, Dawson can tell when someone is lying by the minute changes in the voice.
The book has a strong sense of place: you can see, smell and taste the village. As, for instance, in this scene:
“The flickering kerosene lanterns of night traders lit up the evening like a constellation. The kiosks and chop bars had electricity, but many homes were still using kerosene lamps as their light source. The air smelled of smoke and the tantalizing aroma of kelewele, fried fish, and red-hot meat stews. The flying termites that always appeared after a rain shower were fluttering around whatever fluorescent lights they could find, irresistibly drawn to them but rendered flightless in the instant they made contact with the bulbs.”
The forest has a “padded and insulated quality” where “[e]very footfall, every scrunch of dead leaves or crack of a branch had a kind of nearness isolated by the cocoon of the forest’s stillness.”
The characters are engaging and believable. Dawson is tenacious but has his demons, which seems to be a prerequisite for detectives, although he is balanced by his wife, Christine, who takes no nonsense from him. Efia is a seemingly fragile woman but her determination to take her daughter Ama away from Adzima gives her the strength to fight.
I thoroughly enjoyed this and am looking forward to reading the others in the series!