Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The Missing American

Internet scammers, a political assassination, a mysterious journalist, an intrepid young private investigator, and the fascinating setting of Ghana—these are just a few of the elements that drive the action in Kwei Quartey's exquisite new crime novel, THE MISSING AMERICAN (Soho, 2020).

THE MISSING AMERICAN introduces the young PI Emma Djan, a 26-year-old Ghanaian woman who, following in her father’s footsteps, longs to be a homicide detective but is instead placed in a police bureaucracy that has her investigating dull financial cases and facing sexual harassment from her superior in the Criminal Investigation Department. The latter ultimately lands her in a situation that gets her sacked from the CID—but it’s a blessing in disguise, as she is hired at a local private investigation agency where her ambitions are better fulfilled and her talents respected.

Emma Djan is almost immediately drawn into the investigation of a missing American man, Gordon Tilson, who arrived in Ghana in hopes of meeting a beautiful woman he met online. That woman turns out to be a fraud run by one of Ghana’s infamous sakawa boys, a ring of criminal who combine cybercrimes with “traditional” rituals that allegedly enhance their power to swindle unsuspecting foreigners.

The bewildering details and rituals of sakawa are vividly rendered by Quartey in his unique and at times hypnotic prose. Where other authors may have glossed over some of these details, Quartey spares us none, which allows the reader a much richer understanding of what is at stake. 
An apparent bust of sakawa boys in Ghana
in a typical staged police photo
We meet several of the sakawa boys and the fetish priest, Kewku Ponsu, from whom they seek their supernatural enablement and around whom they revolve. Ponsu is but one of the memorable characters in THE MISSING AMERICAN.

One of the most enigmatic characters is a powerful investigative journalist, Sana Sana, whose reports reveal the perpetrators of crimes and corruption at the highest levels. With so much on the line, Sana Sana fiercely guards his anonymity, veils himself behind a curtain of beads when meeting with people and undertakes a plethora of security measures before going anywhere. His investigation into sakawa means his path intersects with everyone from Gordon Tilson to Emma Djan.

This is a long novel that is rewarding on a number of levels. The Ghanaian setting will be unfamiliar to most readers, but Quartey is a gifted guide through its sights, smells, and tastes. His rendering of the places, ethnic groups, and even dialects and pidgin English is expert. There are many crimes in the book, not just the internet scams, but of course murder, too. (We know from the title that someone goes missing.) The criminal elements are not much of a shock or surprise; but, like a great work of detection, they are presented and solved alongside the progress Emma Djan makes as the plot unfolds. The suspenseful pulse of the book is derived from the many elements of the plot and subplots that require satisfying resolutions--and Quartey, better than most writers, delivers in tying them up.

Anas Aremeyaw Anas -- the
real-life Sana Sana?
Quartey brings alive a corner of Africa by mining realistic details of life and crime in contemporary Ghana and weaving them into a compelling and entertaining narrative. The sakawa boys present a huge challenge in global cybercrime, but also in local politics. Sana Sana appears be based on a real investigative journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas, who maintains his anonymity almost identically to the way Quartey describes his fictional counterpart. The Ghanaian locations, cities, landmarks, foods, slang are all credibly portrayed and thereby lend the most enjoyable details to this delicious and spellbinding novel.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Hard Cash Valley

The action is intense, gritty, and recurrent in HARD CASH VALLEY, the third crime novel from Brian Panowich (Minotaur, 2020). It’s the story of Dane Kirby, a fire chief turned consultant to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Kirby is sent to Florida to help the Feds investigate the fallout from a brutal murder associated with the victim’s alleged swindling of prize money from the Slasher—the biggest (underground) cockfight in the USA. The Slasher took place at the Farm in Dane’s home turf of McFalls County, which is familiar territory for readers of Panowich’s previous two novels, BULL MOUNTAIN and LIKE LIONS.

Early in the investigation, Kirby is teamed with a hard-nosed FBI agent named Roselita Velasquez and the duo learns that the victim’s younger brother is hiding out somewhere in Georgia. Finding and protecting the boy, who has Asperger syndrome, becomes a driving force that leads Kirby and Velasquez down some harrowing paths in the north Georgia mountains.

The search for the boy follows a trail that becomes increasingly scattered with the bodies of anyone involved in the international cockfighting ring, and Dane Kirby—with his intimate knowledge of the landscape and the players of McFalls County, and a motivation to find and protect the boy—is essential to guiding the investigation while tussling with federal and local law enforcement along the way.

Dane Kirby’s motivation runs much deeper than achieving the satisfaction of a rescue operation. An event in his past—not revealed until near the novel’s end—haunts his existence and drives his energy, and it constitutes a powerful secondary storyline. The profound psychological heaves of love and loss inform nearly every decision Dane makes; those yearnings make him at once more courageous and more fragile. He’s a man trying to live in the physical reality of his world, but the spiritual realms seem, at times, to inhibit his ability to make meaning out of anything.

Panowich’s prose is graceful and addictive. His characters, no matter how minor to the plot are memorable from their first entrance on the page. Take James Edwin, the key holder for Black Mountain Safari Zoo. "The obese man in sweatpants and house shoes fumbled around in the large pocket of his canvas jacket the way a woman would rifle through the insides of a purse until he pulled out a set of keys... ." This is a character you can instantly see in your mind’s eye. 

The emotional undercurrents of HARD CASH VALLEY are often wrenching but never melodramatic. This is a deeply affecting and entertaining crime story that rewards the reader with both a memorable payoff to the mystery elements of the plot and a moving conclusion to Dane Kirby’s journey of the soul.