Once again I’d like to range north from South Africa and introduce a new author from Kenya. Richard Crompton’s first novel was released in the UK in February as THE HONEY GUIDE and in the US in May as HOUR OF THE RED GOD. The paperback edition will be out in the UK on the 4th of this month, and the book is also available as an ebook.It has garnered excellent reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. For example, in a starred review PUBLISHER’S WEEKLY said: “A spectacular fiction debut . . . Instantly elevates the author to the first rank of African crime writers”.
The novel is set in Nairobi at the time of the tense 2007 elections. The city is controlled by a small elite who hold power, in various forms, over an impoverished, restless majority. Amid claims of vote rigging and fraud, the presidential elections could be the spark that sets the city ablaze.With chaos looming, there is little concern about a murdered prostitute. But Detective Mollel is a former Maasai warrior, and the dead girl was a Maasai, too. Mollel’s focus on the case becomes almost a fixation as he seeks justice for the murdered woman. Rich in character development and a sense of place, this is a brilliant debut.
Richard moved from London to Nairobi with his family in 2005 and has been living in Kenya ever since. I asked Richard about his move to Kenya and his books:
Would you tell us what brought you to Kenya and how you came to live in Nairobi?
Back in 2005, my wife and I were living in London. I was a BBC producer and she was a barrister. We both wanted a change of scene and when she was offered a job prosecuting the Rwandan genocide suspects in Arusha, Tanzania, we jumped at the opportunity.
I became a freelance TV and radio reporter, roving across Africa, until I was appointed Kenya bureau chief for the network CNBC Africa. We fell in love with Nairobi, and six years on, our family is very settled here.
You obviously have a deep knowledge of the notorious Kenyan elections of 2007. That tension is the backdrop of your book. Did you cover the elections as a journalist?
Yes, I was on the ground for the post-electoral violence. At the time I was living close to the presidential residence at State House, and we had a tank parked in our driveway. It was also just a short way from the scene of the book’s opening murder. I will never forget the tension which gripped the city during that period. It was a deeply unpleasant time, but I was impressed by the resilience and courage of the vast majority of Nairobians, and this was something I wanted to pay tribute to in my book.
I started with the working title THE HONEY GUIDE long before I knew where the book would lead. I was fascinated by the relationship between the honeyguide bird and the pastoralists of Africa – where birds lead humans to a bees’ nest so they can scavenge the larvae while the human takes the honey. It’s the only example of an animal training a human, and struck me as a good metaphor for the detective story. As a writer, I am enticing the reader to follow clues which will hopefully lead to a sweet outcome for both of us!
In the US, my publishers felt that readers would appreciate a more dramatic title. I chose HOUR OF THE RED GOD, because it fits so many aspects of my story. The red god, in Maasai myth, is the god of vengeance and death. This spirit is evident in the murder which opens the book, in the madness which grips the city, and also in aspects of my hero Mollel’s complex psychology.
Mollel is a rich character. He doesn’t fit into the standard police mold, yet he can be very focused on a case – several times he goes outside the formal approach to police work, and at the beginning he actually forgets his son in a shop! He is conflicted by relationships and haunted by a horrible event in his past. How did you come to create a Maasai policeman with all this backstory?
I never intended to load poor Mollel with so many demons – it just worked out that way! He was born in a village and raised herding goats, yet now is a policeman in a modern urban metropolis. He is driven by a sense of justice but knows that following the rules won’t yield results. As a detective, he seems to care more about the rights of the dead than the needs of the living. All of these dichotomies reflect the harsh choices of life in this polarized city – small wonder, then, that Mollel sometimes finds his choices don’t work out the way he hopes.
The juxtaposition of rich and poor is characteristic of the Nairobi of 2007. It’s certainly not alone in that. But also you bring out the explosive and bitter tribalism of the time. Has much changed since then?
Like everyone here, I was relieved and delighted that the 2013 election saw no repeat of the horror of 2007. I think the credit for this must go to the Kenyan people, who were shocked by how things got out of hand last time and resolved to not allow it to happen again. But the political class has not changed at all. Tribalism continues to be a tool used by the cynical to gain wealth and power, and the deep inequalities of society remain unaddressed.
The story seems to grow organically to a surprising but satisfying conclusion. Did you start with the plot worked out or did you take the circumstances and characters and see how they developed?
The plot came first, but as I progressed, it became richer. Sub-plots became more complex, characters became more nuanced, and I enjoyed delving into the heritage and history of the Maasai culture which forms Mollel’s background. While writing, I also realized that there was more than one book in this material, so I started to sow one or two subtle seeds for a series amongst the plot.
It’s called HELL’S GATE and takes place a year after the events of the first. In the wake of the post-electoral violence, UN investigators reported that the Kenyan police were using the chaos to settle old scores and eliminate troublemakers. Mollel infiltrates one such suspected death squad. But he soon realizes that there is more at stake than his own life…
Learn more about Richard and his books on his website.