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Jonathan Ball

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Michael Stanley’s Latest Detective Kubu Novel, A Death in the Family, Launched in Cape Town

Michael Stanley is Stanley Trollip and Michael Sears

An intimate gathering of Detective Kubu fans celebrated his newest incarnation at the Pendock Wine Gallery at The Taj in Cape Town recently. They raised a glass to Michael Stanley, the authorial duo who created this literary detective. Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip were in town to launch A Death in the Family, a tale in which Kubu must track down the killer of his own dear father.

Trollip, who shares his time between Cape Town and Minneapolis, and Sears, who resides in Johannesburg, entertained their guests with tales of their travels, literary and corporeal. When they are not busy flinging together new novel chapters from opposite ends of the earth, this talented team can be found wandering through the African bush, gathering inspiration for the next novel.

A Death in the FamilySears started the event by recalling the early days of their collaboration. “Stan is a pilot. He used to fill up a plane with wine and family and friends and we’d set off together on photographic safaris to wonderful destinations in Africa. On one occasion in Savuti, we watched a pack of hyenas pulling down a wildebeest. They ate everything except the hooves. I suppose we’d had some of the wine by then and I thought what a great way of getting rid of a body. It struck us as the perfect murder. No body. No case. Both being academics, we thought to start work on this as soon as possible. About 25 years later we finally started writing the book. I had a go at writing the first chapter of A Carrion Death.”

Trollip took over the story, seguing into his colleague’s narrative in a manner that mimics their writing process. “Because we are both academics, our original intention was to have the ecologist as the main character. But we needed a policeman to run the formal investigation as there were some odd clothes left lying about that the hyenas didn’t consume. Kubu was an incidental character initially, but he took over as the main character.

“One of the mysteries of writing is that the authors doesn’t necessarily control the character. He wasn’t going to be relegated to a bit part behind an academic – of all things. We put him in the Land Rover, but he announced himself fully formed by the time he arrived. Kubu means ‘hippopotamus’ in Setswana.”

Sears picked up the explanation of their central character’s naming: “They look deceptively docile, however they kill more people than any other animal, trampling whatever lies between them and their objective. On the surface our detective appears harmless – a convivial man with a sly sense of humour and a large belly. He loves his wife and his food with equal passion. He is, however a capable and wily policeman determined to rid Botswana of crime and corruption.”

Trollip explained two incidents that made him think that the Chinese presence in Africa would be a great backstory for a Kubu mystery. The first was a refuelling stop on a camping trip through Namibia and Botswana in a tiny town near Oshakati. Beside the petrol station was a fairly large supermarket and a Chinese store. While paying for his provisions, he observed a Chinese man being teased by the locals. “He was obviously not amused,” he said.

“Throughout southern Africa, Chinese interests are trying to get control of its resources, often by offering other projects, such as roads and airports, at very favourable prices which necessitates the use of Chinese labour. This reduces the employment opportunities for locals, breeding resentment, as does the Chinese reluctance to get involved in the local community.”

The second incident that inspired Trollip took place a few days after the first. Driving from the Savuti area of the great Chobe National Park to the town of Kasane he was surprised to discover this route was no longer a gravel road. “It had been paved from Kachikau to Ngoma Bridge, which carries the road from Botswana into the Caprivi Strip section of Namibia,” he said.

“There was no obvious reason for this road to be paved since the traffic is very light, Kachikau being a small village. Halfway along this newly paved road a village surrounded by barbed wire had sprung up, displaying Chinese signs and posters. The riddle was solved. The Chinese had built this road, probably greasing the skids to win more lucrative contracts. The village was where the Chinese labourers lived, isolated from the locals.

“In addition, like the small Chinese store in Oshakati, similar stores are springing up all over Botswana (and Africa), often putting locally run businesses out of business – naturally causing anger and resentment. It was probably a combination of this anger and the self-imposed isolation of the Chinese from the locals that had sparked the teasing at Oshakati,” he said.

Trollip looked into it further and discovered several big contracts for major construction the Chinese had won, including a new airport for Gaborone. “Before the airport was completed, the Chinese went back to the Botswana government asking for more money. When the government refused the Chinese company walked away. The terminal building remains unfinished to this day, with the roof leaking and barriers all over the place,” said Trollip.

Sears noted the irritation expressed by Botswana’s President Ian Khama in a 2013 interview by Business Day.

And so the fans learned the background to A Death in the Family. They snapped up their copies of the book, got them signed by Sears and Trollip, and then headed home to dive into Detective Kubu’s latest endeavours.

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Liesl Jobson (@LieslJobson) tweeted live from the event using the hashtag #livebooks:


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