By Derek Gunn
Michael Stanley is actually two people, and no, that is not a reference to Schizophrenia. Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip are the two men involved. Both are retired professors who have worked in academia and business. The detail on their website informs us that Sears is a mathematician, specializing in geological remote sensing, and Trollip is an educational psychologist, specializing in the application of computers to teaching and learning, and a pilot. They were both born in South Africa.
This last fact is more than obvious when you begin to read DEADLY HARVEST. Their numerous visits to the African continent and their knowledge of local history and beliefs make this an intriguing read.
This is the fourth book in the Detective Kubu series and the differences between it and other police procedurals will hit you from the first page. First of all the series is set in Botswana, a long way from CSI NEW YORK I can tell you, and this is where the series comes into its own. The setting is interesting, compelling and so different that you will lose yourself in the pages.
The book begins with a young girl going missing in Botswana. Local police quickly lose interest as many children run away from their lives. There are persistent rumours of muti, a black magic potion that can be made more potent by adding human remains, so the case is passed to Botswana’s first female Dectective, Samantha Khama.
Any of us who have watched procedurals on TV where the woman is the first in a department to become a detective can throw out what we see in American serials. This is Africa and Samantha’s problems are compounded by the traditions of country as well as her sex.
But this is a Dectective Kubu book, I hear you say. Yes it is. Kubuis one of the best detectives in the Botswana Criminal Investigation force. His actual name is David Bengu, Kubu is a nickname that refers to his size; it translates to hippopotamus.He juggles his job, his private life, and a country that is only beginning to enter the modern world. Superstition and tradition seem to block him at every turn, technology is limited, and life is never easy for this lovable character.
Samantha asks him to help in her investigation. Muti is discovered with human DNA, another girl goes missing, and the two detectives are thrown into a race to stop a serial killer – or is there an evil witch doctor involved?
That’s all I’m going to reveal at this point. Michael managed to take some time out to answer some questions regarding the book:
Your characters certainly have a lot to deal with in life, not to mention the crimes themselves. Has this evolved over the series or have you always been this hard on them?
Probably they’ve always had quite a bit of trouble! For example, Kubu’s wife and sister-in-law get dragged into the case in our second book. Each novel has as its back story a real issue currently facing southern Africa. In A CARRION DEATH it was the exploitation of resources – particularly diamonds, legally and illegally – in THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU the legacy of the Rhodesian bush war was the cause of the murders, and DEATH OF THE MANTIS revolved around the plight of the Bushman peoples of the Kalahari. All these involved personal issues for the main characters. In DEADLY HARVEST it is the prevalence of belief in the power of witch doctors and their murder of people – often children – for their black magic potions. AIDS also hovers in the background. Yet the people of Botswana are almost uniformly friendly and often seem happier despite their hardships than people who are better off.
The procedural element in the novel is very realistic and the politics and local detail are very believable, where do you get your knowledge and inspiration from? Did either of you live in the area?
Neither of us has actually lived in Botswana, but we’ve visited many times. Michael was also involved with the diamond industry there for a while. Of course we both were born and grew up in South Africa, and Michael still lives in Johannesburg while Stanley spends half his time at a town on the South African coast and half in Minneapolis. South Africa is very similar to Botswana in some ways, but very different in others.
This is the first time I have interviewed a writing partnership. Can you give us an understanding of how the writing process works?
It’s an interesting question. In fact, there is a broad variety of ways fiction writing partnerships work, and writing this way is becoming more common. (We think that’s because the internet gives one so many free and instant communication options.) Styles range from quite rigidly dividing up research, plotting, and writing, to both writers doing everything. We’re at the latter end. We usually start the plotting by brainstorming together and laying out where we want to go with the book, and thereafter we each do first drafts of different chapters or parts of chapters, bouncing them back and forth by email until we are both happy with them. We research different aspects on the internet, but always visit and spend time at the locations in Botswana where we set the action. Our visits to Botswana and our brainstorming sessions are about the only aspects of the work that we do when we’re actually in the same place!
I love the way the hard procedure of police work is the same no matter where you set a book, but you have picked a country where change is almost normal and hardship second nature. Why Botswana?
Well, as we said before, we are both South Africans so it was natural to set our novels in southern Africa. So we guess your question is really why not South Africa? One reason is that we like Botswana so much with its diversity of people and environments from desert to lush wildlife riverine forest. Another is that the first book required a setting where a body could be dumped for hyenas to consume and remove the evidence. South African wildlife areas are too controlled for that to make sense. The most important reason is that we want to explore different issues in the region without always being in the context of crime following the legacy of apartheid, which seems to be the default in South Africa itself.
Do either of you have a ritual, do you plan out every detail, or do you see where the story leads?
We’ve done it both ways! The first book started with the hyena scene and pretty well developed itself from there. Our second book was planned in quite a bit of detail – mind maps, character bios, the lot – and the synopsis we sent to the publisher initially was pretty close to the final outcome. Since then it’s been a combination – some planning but a lot of change as the book developed.
In terms of the writing process, neither of us has a ritual. We both write when and where convenient. Obviously to have finished four novels, we are disciplined. But we’re not disciplined in terms of setting aside so many hours each day.
If you were given one paragraph to convince people to buy your novel what would it say?
This is the first time we have been asked this great question!
The Detective Kubu novels are different in almost every way from those you are used to reading. The setting is the wonderful country of Botswana, with its diverse landscapes and peoples; the protagonist, Assistant Superintendent David “Kubu” Bengu, is a happily married man who loves his food and has an ongoing battle with his wife about his weight. He is an intuitive and complex policeman, who doesn’t always follow procedures, and the mysteries are overlaid on contemporary social issues that confront not only Botswana, but many countries around the world. A gentle humor permeates each book.
In between work and writing do you have any time to read? Who do you enjoy most?
We both enjoy mysteries but also a variety of other writing, both fiction and non-fiction. Michael’s favourite author is John le Carré, both his earlier espionage novels and most of the more recent ones, particularly those with partly African settings like THE MISSION SONG and THE CONSTANT GARDENER. Stanley enjoys James McClure’s mysteries set in South Africa during apartheid, as well as contemporary writers such as Peter James, Jeffrey Deaver, Michael Connelly, and Kent Krueger.
We’re working on the fifth Detective Kubu mystery at the moment. The back story for this one will be the growing influence of the Chinese in Africa and what their long-term and short-term goals are there. People in Botswana buy whole houses in knocked-down form by visiting China, yet Chinese construction companies have done a poor job with major projects in the country. No doubt it is the regions rich natural resources, as well as new customers, that the Chinese are after.
We’re also working on a stand-alone thriller only partly set in Africa. That’s still under wraps at the moment!
I love their answer above for their paragraph to entice new readers. This is a great book, the characters are interesting and the setting is brilliantly imagined. I know nothing about Botswana so this was a real baptism of fire, but one I really enjoyed. The prospect of having three previous books and another new one to read in the series is good news for me and for all of the series fans who are already hooked. For those of you who have not yet tried this series then you really should.
DEADLY HARVEST comes out next week in trade paperback and Kindle.
Michael Stanley is the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, both South Africans by birth. Both have worked in academia and business, Sears in South Africa and Trollip in the USA. Their love of watching the wildlife of the African subcontinent has taken them on a number of flying safaris to Botswana and Zimbabwe.
Their critically acclaimed Detective Kubu mysteries have been short listed for a variety of prizes including the Anthony and the Edgar. DEATH OF THE MANTIS won the Barry Award for best paperback original mystery in 2012.
To learn more about Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, please visit their website.