2007 elections in Kenya, this novel takes what seems a common path these days of placing a social or political commentary within the reader-friendly confines of a crime novel. Centre to the action is a Maasai detective, Mollel, a widower following the 1998 bombing of Nairobi's US Embassy, with a young son that he struggles to engage with. Though he is only passing through Nairobi, the discovery of the body of a young Maasai woman, initially lazily presumed a prostitute, leads to Mollel's assignment to the case, accompanied by a cocky local detective, Kiunga. Against the backdrop of the preparations for the election, and for the trouble expected in its wake, Mollel and Kiunga gradually trace the origin of the dead woman and uncover the circumstances leading up to her death. But their investigation takes them into the path of powerful interests, both political and religious, threatening both their jobs and their lives.
A bit of a curate's egg this one. Taken as a whole, it's a fairly good read, and very interesting for someone like me who knows only vaguely of Kenya's political problems. Crompton does a creditable job introducing the reader to the country and its people, and it feels thorough without coming across as a dry history lesson. As ever, using the police procedural format allows the novel to go to places that are exotic, but within a reassuringly familiar framework. So though one isn't quite sure which facet of Kenyan society will next present itself as a hurdle for the policemen, their goals and methods are comfortably recognisable. And the twists and turns of Crompton's tale do weave in genuinely interesting details of Kenya's struggle with corruption and, at times, tribal politics.
Given all this, it seems rude to be critical, but Crompton also misses a few tricks along the way. One somewhat confusing aspect is that, though billed as a "Mollel mystery", Kiunga steadily competes for the reader's time - and affections; he's a lot more chipper than Mollel - as the novel progresses. For readers like me, raised on novels with a central detective that's named on their covers, this is a little distracting. Worse is the rapid unspooling of both plot and character details late in the book, which rather undoes some quite careful set up. For instance, after stalling the investigation, several pivotal characters are suddenly altogether too quick to resolve things as the novel's pages start to run out. And the hinted backstory of Mollel - but also that of Kiunga - is rushed out in a rather contrived scene that finds both spilling their guts during an extended ascent up the Kenyatta International Conference Centre, where the election results are being collated and corrupted. These aspects sap the novel's credibility somewhat, making it feel a little like Crompton was rushing to meet a publisher's deadline.
But for a first novel - and one that's already labelled up as being the start of a series - it's a good start by Crompton. And it's not as if that other famous detective, John Rebus, had a solid first outing!