The Africa Scene — An Interview with Annamaria Alfieri author of STRANGE GODS
Annamaria Alfieri is the author of three critically-acclaimed historical mysteries set in South America. The Washington Post said of her debut novel, “As both history and mystery, CITY OF SILVER glitters.” The Christian Science Monitor chose her BLOOD TANGO as one of ten must-read thrillers, and Kirkus Reviews said of INVISIBLE COUNTRY, “Alfieri has written an antiwar mystery that compares with the notable novels of Charles Todd.”
With that sort of track record, it’s exciting to see her focus move to Africa. Her new novel, STRANGE GODS is set in the burgeoning British East African town of Nairobi in 1911. Described as OUT OF AFRICA meets Agatha Christie, it captures the beauty and the danger of the African wild and the complexities of imposing a culture on a foreign land.
A world traveler, Annamaria takes a keen interest in the history of the places she visits. Many of her travel experiences feature on Murder is Everywhere where she blogs every Monday. She lives in New York City, and is a past president of the New York Chapter of Mystery Writers of America.
I asked Annamaria about writing historical fiction and her new series.
You have three successful historical mysteries set in South America. What drew you to Africa and to Kenya in particular?
All of my stories are inspired by the history of places I have visited. In the course of two month-long trips to sub-Saharan Africa, I became completely entranced, you might say infatuated with it. Since my ability to spend time there is limited, I decided I would satisfy my longing by being what Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) called “a mental traveler.” That worked to the extent that I was able to produce a book out of it. My longing for Africa, however, is not at all satisfied. If anything, writing STRANGE GODS intensified it.
STRANGE GODS is set in 1911. It’s been said of African novels that the setting is one of the characters. In your books, history is also one of the characters. Is that what attracts you to historical fiction?
History bored me when I studied it in school. Memorizing the causes of the Hundred Years’ War or the dates of the first twenty-one Presidents of the United States did nothing at all for my soul. But I fell in love with historical fiction in my teen years. A trip to Bolivia inspired my first historical mystery, and while working on it, I found that learning the true backstory of a place fires my imagination. I have to learn many little details to make the long ago seem real. Doing so really gets my fictional juices flowing.
I’ve been tempted to try a historical setting, but the amount of research required for every page is daunting. You even have real people in your book—Denys Finch Hatton of OUT OF AFRICA fame plays a role. How do you approach the detailed research for your books?
I read a bit of straight history—what historians have to say about the geopolitics of the time and place, but mostly, I read eyewitness accounts. For instance, for STRANGE GODS, I found a memoire of a man—W. Robert Foran—who was a policeman in British East Africa from 1905 to 1909. What a treasure trove that was. He not only told me how the police force worked, but he wrote about how policemen lived, what the different ethnic groups in Mombasa wore and on and on. I felt as if he had written that book just for me, since I mined a nugget out of every paragraph.
Biographies of the real people or of people who lived in the same time and place are tremendously helpful. Really good biographers try to place themselves in the time and place of their subject, so they go over the same territory as I do. Often it is great to have such a writer as a guide. And I absolutely love their bibliographies.
STRANGE GODS is about two cultures in conflict, but it is also a love story of two rather different young people. Did you craft Vera and Justin for the story or is the context of the story a setting for them?
Both, in a way. I crafted the characters in the sense that once I chose the time and place, I purposely chose to write about three people—Tolliver, Vera, the tribal policeman Kwai Libazo—all of whom stand between two worlds. Justin Tolliver, my young policeman, is an English nobleman so impecunious that he cannot afford to take land. He becomes a policeman so that he can stay in the land he has grown to love, but his fellow aristocrats look down on such public servants. Vera McIntosh is the daughter of a Scottish missionary and expected to grow up a proper British girl, but she was born in Africa and grew up with Kikuyu girls as playmates. And Kwai Libazo is half-Kikuyu and half-Maasai, rejected by both tribes. As an askari, he now works for the British, and he feels like a man without a country.
Once the story started to unfold, of course, they developed their own characters and became their own people. They grew in my mind. I know that you understand that this happens. Perhaps only another writer could.
Early in the book, Vera’s uncle is found murdered with a spear in his back. A local witch doctor is arrested on flimsy evidence. Justin needs to solve the case quickly before the witch doctor’s summary execution, but he receives little help and his discoveries are unpopular. Perhaps in the end people stay the same whenever and wherever?
Yes and no. I think in the real world people remain essentially themselves but their behaviors and attitudes do shift as they learn more about the world around them and form important relationships with others. My characters are all seekers. Finding what they are looking for (or figuring out that they should look for something else) has an effect on how, and perhaps even who they are.
I’m delighted that this is a new series. Would you give us a hint of what’s ahead for Vera and Justin?
The administration of British East Africa moved their police officers around the territory. My characters will move too. So in the next book, we are going to Mombasa on the coast in 1912. There, Tolliver finds a cultural/religious clash between the British and the Arab Muslim population, which has been trading there for a millennium. Shari-‘a law permits slavery. British law forbids it. And thereby hangs my tale.