Trust in forensic science and computers

Monday 5th January 2009
Professors Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip

Gaberlunzie never has any problems spending book tokens, but if anyone out there is on the hunt for a couple of detective novels, this travel & detective reviewer has located two that look to be worth reading.

"Move over No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency; there is a new police detective in Botswana created by Michael Stanley, the South African writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip.

In "Carrion Death: Introducing Detective Kubu," Assistant Superintendant David Bengu (Kubu) is called upon to investigate a death that may or may not be a murder. Park rangers have discovered a body near a water hole in the Central Kalahari Game Preserve, partially devoured by hyenas. Who was he, and was he murdered?

The oversized Detective Kubu (his nickname means "hippo" in Setswana) is a likable man who sings along to opera in his car, adores his wife and honors his parents. He represents the new class of African professional who has been educated in the modern world but remains rooted in the old traditions. He has learned the art of observation from Kalahari bushmen and believes in the warnings of a medicine man. But he puts his trust in modern forensic science and computers.

He follows a convoluted trail of clues involving the Botswana Cattle and Mining Company. The company is owned by a wealthy European family: a brother, a sister and an uncle, each maneuvering to gain control of the company. The plot touches on diamond mining, the illegal or "blood" diamond trade, the cultural traditions of Africa and the natural beauty of Botswana.

Closer to home

The Shetland Islands off the northeast coast of Scotland provide the setting for (right) Ann Cleeves's Shetland Island Quartet.

In "Raven Black," the islands are buried in deep, white snowdrifts. A teacher walking home notices a splash of red in the snow, a striking contrast to the black ravens circling above. It is the body of a local teenager whose red scarf has been used to strangle her.

Suspicion immediately falls on an old man who isn't quite right in the head. Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez leads the investigation and doesn't believe the old man is guilty. Perez grew up on neighboring Fair Isle; he knows the locals and the way of life in this remote community. (His Spanish last name, according to family legend, comes from an ancestor who was a sailor in the Spanish Armada in 1588, was shipwrecked, but managed to swim ashore.)

Cleeves evokes the bitter cold and isolation of winter in the Shetlands, as well as the interconnectedness of the islanders who know each other, but not each other's secrets. The characters are well-drawn and totally convincing.

The author says there will be only four books in this series, one for each season, because "it would stretch credibility to have too many murders in such a small community."


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