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Book Review: Hour of the Red God

Hour of the Red God: A Detective Mollel Novelhour of the red god
By Richard Compton
Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013

Journalist Richard Crompton’s dazzlingly good debut mystery novel Hour of the Red God is set in 2007 against the backdrop of Nairobi’s chaotic and violent presidential elections, and it features one of the most interesting detectives to appear in mystery fiction in years: Detective Mollel, a Massai warrior who’s both part of the Nairobi police force and part of the traditional Massai world (a world Crompton knows as few outsiders do, and that knowledge shines on virtually every page of the book). Mollel has the customary set of personal demons that are now de rigueur for police procedurals, but with some fascinating twists, and he brings to his job a combination of rueful dispassion and tireless physical competence that’s quintessential Massai but that will also be familiar to mystery readers from a whole host of recent avatars, from Ian Rankin’s John Rebus to “Michael Stanley”‘s Detective Kubu. Hour of the Red God starts with a gripping scene in which we see Mollel in action, and the gripping scenes just keep coming. This is an utterly masterful debut.

Detective Mollel’s split nature isn’t the only glaring dichotomy here, of course. Nairobi itself presents just such a dichotomy and likely always will. The modern city has Internet cafes, glass-fronted shops, and state-of-the-art political corruption, and yet grinding, dusty poverty is everywhere – including, as Crompton cannily does nothing to hide, in the police department, which operates with bare-bones infrastructure and virtually no 20th century crime-solving technology.

Fortunately for the case of the murdered prostitute that kicks off the novel, Crompton’s Nairobi police force has the most crucial piece of crime-solving technology: a good, brave man who’s willing to fight evil and who knows how to really see what he’s looking at:

As ever, it’s the details that fascinate him. The Indian man who pulls up in an SUV, child seats in the back. The fat, bald African who seems to consider – then reject – at least ten girls before choosing two to disappear with. And the way in which the girls carry on their trade: the teamwork, the way they look out for one another, the surreptitious glances at licence plates and monitoring of suspicious activity, the scrutiny of the johns by the ones left behind.

Mollel is becoming convinced of a few basic truths. One, only junkies work alone. All the other girls maintain a network of friendships and alliances for their own convenience and protection. Two, if his victim had been working this street, she’d have been known about, at least by someone. And three, if she is known here, it is likely that these girls know her killer too.

A satisfyingly elaborate plot spins steadily outward from the initial crime in Hour of the Red God, and Crompton is extremely skilled at playing with his readers’expectations. He also exhibits the classic journalist’s verve for scene-setting – everywhere we follow Detective Mollel, we feel actively present on the scene:

Uhuru Park: Nairobi’s playground. Named after freedom, but also granting it, a little freedom from the sprawl and the spread and the spleen of the city.

More books are promised in the adventures of Detective Mollel and his Nairobi colleagues – which is about as happy an outcome as those 2007 elections could possibly have.

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