Thursday, 1 June 2017

Villains beware ... these hunters never tire!

Today, we’re talking cop heroes who come back again and again … whether that be in book form, on TV, the cinema, or preferably all three!

Were doing that first of all because I intend to wax lyrical about the TOP TEN TV COP SHOWS THAT HAVE MOST INFLUENCED MY CRIME WRITING, but also because I intend to review and discuss Michael Stanley’s fantastic Botswana-set cop thriller, DEADLY HARVEST, part of a crime investigation series which, more than almost any other I’ve encountered, illustrates the vast range of styles, tones and subject-matter available within the confines of this very special genre.

If you want to know more about that, though, you’ll have to head down towards the bottom of today’s post, where I review the book and discuss it in some detail. Before then, here as promised is a bit of lyrical waxing …

There are plenty of crime novelists whose heroes return for more. I think that all we crime authors enjoy that aspect of our job, particularly those of us who write from the POV of an investigator. It’s a genuine thrill to have created a hero or heroine who so connects with your readership that the clamour to see more of them rises and rises until it cannot be ignored … especially when the net-result is that you finish up with your own cop thriller franchise.

This isn’t just a big thumbs-up for the work you’ve done, and hugely gratifying for that reason alone, it also opens the whole thing up into a more exciting field, allowing you to develop your central character on an episodic basis, throwing more and more challenges at him/her, confronting them with an ever wider variety and multiplicity of threats, and learning more about them, yourself, as you progress.

Strangely, though … whereas for the writers this is usually the desired outcome (often an ambition rather than a certainty), readers appear to regard it as the norm. They almost expect it to happen, and my suspicion is that this boils down to the way we’ve been conditioned over the decades by a never-ending supply of cop shows on the goggle-box. They’ve been with us almost since the beginning of TV, and from the outset have adopted this very same format, hitting us week after week with a succession of free-standing dramas connected by over-arching story arcs and returning characters, who inevitably grow in strength and stature and profile until they are virtually immortal.

And immortality is undoubtedly the status we’d all like our cop characters to achieve, even if we don’t exactly anticipate it. For which reason, I’m very proud that on April 6 this year, ASHES TO ASHES, the sixth novel in my DS Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg series, was published. Heck works for Scotland Yard’s Serial Crimes Unit, which, as part of the National Crime Group, sends him all over England and Wales. But he’s a cop whose personal life is massively complicated by the fact that his ex-girlfriend is now his boss, by hideous events in his early years, and by an innate obsessiveness, which sees him embark on such dogged pursuits of justice that he will literally stop at nothing to get a result.

I’m totally delighted that Heck has now commanded sufficient attention in the crime market to have lasted this long in print. Hopefully, there are more books to come – I certainly have plenty more planned.

Anyway, referring back to that huge influence I mentioned previously, as exerted by all that classy cop TV we’ve been so prolongedly exposed to, here, in no particular order, are ...

THE TOP TEN COP SHOWS THAT HAVE INSPIRED MY WORK THE MOST

(I’d love to, and could easily have, chosen many more, but we have to draw the line somewhere, alas):

The Sweeney (75-78): British TV put the stern but friendly beat-bobbies of the Dixon of Dock Green era firmly behind it with this high-energy action series from Thames Television, which focussed on the investigations of the Flying Squad, London’s elite anti-robbery unit. It shocked even 1970s audiences with its sex and violence, and made lasting stars of John Thaw and Dennis Waterman. Teak-tough coppering of the genuine old school.

Dragnet (1949-2003)Dragnet may sound as if it’s the longest-running police show in history, but it’s had various incarnations: on the radio, on TV, and on the big screen, but the cases of LA detective Joe Friday, the arch wheeler-dealer in the midst of urban mayhem, are never less than enthralling. Several TV stars have played him, including Jack Webb and Ed O’Neill. Stands alongside The Untouchables as one of the granddaddies of TV cop dramas.

Miami Vice (1984-89): Allegedly sold on a two-word pitch – MTV Cops – this extraordinary fashion parade of a crime series rewrote the rules in the mid-80s, putting on a show that was faster, slicker and more explosive than anything prior to it, pitting snazzily-dressed Miami detectives Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas against a succession of drugs-dealing sleazeballs. Often OTT, it spellbound its initial audiences with its gaudy displays of carnage.

The Wire (2002-08): Seen by many as one of the greatest crime series of all time, The Wire broke all regular cop show protocols by telling its stories from the perspectives of the criminals as well as the police (usually non-judgementally), and in so doing, painted a vivid, warts-and-all picture of its host city, Baltimore. Sharply observant and meticulously written, it still dominates as one of the classiest and most literary police procedurals in TV history.

Columbo (1968-90): Peter Falk was already a household name when he took this role (which Bing Crosby rejected!), but it would still send his career stratospheric. His pitch-perfect portrayal of the scruffy but shrewd Lieutenant Joe Columbo perfectly complemented the show’s unique formula, in which we all knew who the murderer was but the tension stemmed from the cat-and-mouse game played between Joe C and his (often) star-name adversary.

Hill Street Blues (1981-87): In some ways a soap opera, but nevertheless a firm favourite with crime fans, Hill Street unashamedly took us into the private lives and loves of a whole range of individuals working a big inner-city police precinct. Action interwove with social drama as an ensemble cast of compelling characters worked their way through difficult shifts, which they often struggled to recover from afterwards. Gritty and unmissable cop TV.

The Shield (2002-08): Fox TV’s finest hour, as Detective Vic Mackey led his cold-blooded Strike Team in a non-stop war against the street-gangs of south-central LA, doing everything possible to pin the hoodlums down but at the same time getting rich from the illegal proceeds. Criticised for its ‘understanding’ portrayal of corrupt police officers, this eye-poppingly well-made cop show remains one of the most emotionally intense ever to hit the screen.

Cagney and Lacey (1982-88): Picking up the gauntlet where Angie Dickinson’s pioneering Police Woman dropped it, Cagney and Lacey followed the buddy-buddy cop format, but in this case with two female detectives, Tyne Daley and Sharon Gless, trawling New York’s mean streets, leading very different private lives, encountering endless chauvinism, and yet proving as effective a crime-fighting duo as any of their male counterparts. Great banter too.

Messiah (2001-2008): Though there have only been four installments in this hard-hitting BBC adaptation of (and spin-off from) Boris Starling’s original novel, Ken Stott has never been better than as DCI Red Metcalfe, whose adversarial Murder Squad pursued vicious killers responsible for crimes crazier and more harrowing than we’d ever seen before. The first outing in particular – which included crucifixions and sawings-in-half – struck new levels of horror in TV police drama.

Happy Valley (2014-16): One-time soap star Sarah Lancashire won deserved praise for her performance as a droll uniformed sergeant in a none-too-idyllic English rural setting, where she was confronted by drugs, rape, kidnapping and serial murder. A humungous hit on British television, Happy Valley made audiences nervous with its graphic portrayal of violent crime and its repercussions, and for its frank depiction of a tired police force in a very bleak world.


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller and horror novels) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

DEADLY HARVEST 
by Michael Stanley (2016)

Detective David ‘Kubu’ Bengu, Assistant Superintendent of the Gaborone CID, in Botswana, needs a relaxed attitude and a good sense of humour to be able to do his job properly. And that’s not just because he has a procession of heinous crimes to investigate, even though he does, but because he also has to show constant political acumen.

On the whole, Botswana is a well-organised country and a laidback society. Its democratic status is well established and there have been a number of general elections which have been fair and have passed off peacefully. But politics is never an easy issue in this part of Africa; there is often some minor potential for trouble. And on this occasion – when Deadly Harvest opens – it may be worse than usual, because Bill Marumo, charismatic founder and leader of the Freedom Party, looks likely to upset the applecart. He is a strong candidate in the upcoming elections, and if he wins power in Gaborone, it will be a real blow to the ruling Botswana Democratic Party.

A routine event, you might think – politics would not be politics without surprise results now and again. But Marumo appears to be under threat. When bloody graffiti is daubed on his house and a severed dog’s head stuck on a post outside his door, local CID boss, Director Mabaku – a stern but fair-minded individual, constantly frustrated to be at the beck and call of his establishment paymasters – instructs his best detective, Kubu, to get to the bottom of it quickly but also to exercise sensitivity as the last thing they want is suspicion falling on the government.

Kubu thinks his time could be spent more profitably, but he’s a dutiful officer and he recognises that there are issues here which need addressing – and so he takes the case.

Meanwhile, rookie detective, Samantha Khama, the first female officer to join the Botswana CID, has taken it on herself to investigate the disappearances of two little girls from nearby villages. Both incidents occurred years apart, yet the circumstances were highly suspicious, all the evidence indicating that the youngsters, who were engaged in routine chores at the time, were snatched from public places by strangers who approached them in cars. The local rural police have had no real success in tracing them, but Samantha is disgusted to learn that neither have they tried especially hard. To her mind, there could be two reasons for this: standard inefficiency, which still exists in parts of Botswana’s various civil services, and which she has no patience with; or the muti belief, which she reviles but at the same time fears.

Muti, a form of tribal magic, involves the incantation of spells and the preparation of potions made from organic materials such as plants, herbs, animal parts and sometimes – on occasions when the desired effect is huge (such as the acquisition of immense power!) – fragments of human beings who have been ritually sacrificed by a witch doctor. This in itself is pretty horrific, but it actually gets worse; to achieve the perfect outcome, these witch doctors, the majority of whom assure the authorities that they longer practise muti in which humans are harmed (though who would admit otherwise?) need very specific and vulnerable kinds of victims: usually innocent children and/or albinos.

Initially, Khama struggles on alone in this enquiry. No-one else takes it seriously, while her prickly personality – she is a budding feminist – does not win her over to the largely conservative men with whom she must work. Kubu, a larger-than-life character who is so cheerful and upbeat that he is difficult to offend, is inclined to assist when he can spare a moment, but he too is very busy – especially when Bill Marumo is unexpectedly and brutally murdered. As it transpires, Kubu apprehends a suspect in this crime fairly easily, but increasingly he comes to suspect that he hasn’t even got close to the true evil in their midst, only to then make an astonishing discovery – namely that there may be a muti connection to Marumo’s death as well

Immediately, Khama’s investigation is accorded an entirely new degree of importance. Mabaku combines the two enquiries, Kubu and Khama joining forces. But even for two excellent detectives, it is still a monumental challenge, Kubu convinced that a particularly dangerous witch doctor is somewhere nearby, who, even though he is perpetrating horrific crimes, may enjoy the compliance and even the protection of individuals high up in the ranks of Gaborone officialdom. The dauntless duo continues to receive the full support of Director Mabaku, who is currently seeking a big promotion and thus wants results (though he too is distracted as he has a strong rival in the young but super-efficient head of the Diamond Division, Joshua Gobey). But other senior ranks, whom Kubu would previously have trusted implicitly, are now behaving strangely.

Kubu is increasingly fearful that if this case is ever solved, life as he knew it may never be the same again …

The Icelandic author, Yrsa Sigurdardottir, described Deadly Harvest as ‘sunshine noir’, and that is surely the perfect description of what you’ll get when you open this novel.

If such a phrase evokes a pleasing atmosphere of dramatic sunsets, nodding palms and scenic vistas as viewed from deckchairs on warm verandas, then that is absolutely accurate. For though this is indeed a dark story, there is a deep, deep warmth here. It emanates not just from the central characters, who are among the most pleasant I’ve ever known, but also from Botswana itself, both the spirited people who dwell there and its vibrant, post-colonial culture.

This is NOT the savage Africa of old-fashioned adventure novels. There are no jungles here, no ferocious beasts, no warring tribes. Likewise, this isn’t the Africa of so many modern newsreels, with bands of lawless guerrillas terrorising villages, or political despots inflicting injustice at a whim. Instead, what we get here is an orderly society with laidback people leading harmonious lives, and neighbours and families, even if they’re impoverished, respecting each other to a remarkable degree.

Granted, it’s a world ravaged by AIDS, and political and police corruption are key elements in this tale, but Botswana – and that’s the Botswana of real life, not just the Botswana presented here – has long been renowned among sub-Saharan African counties for its stable economy and generally good government. What’s more, much of this appears to stem from the determination of a nation-state to make a peaceful and prosperous future for itself.

Don’t get me wrong, Deadly Harvest doesn’t preach about this. None of this inherent goodness is in-yer-face, but it is certainly embodied in the character of David ‘Kubu’ Bengu, probably one of the most engaging lead-characters I’ve ever encountered in detective fiction. An opera-lover, a wine connoisseur, and a physically immense chap, overly fond (by his own admission) of good food and cookies (‘Kubu’ Translates into English as ‘Hippo’), he is also an expert homicide investigator, not just au fait with all the latest technical knowledge, but, when it comes to identifying hidden clues, possessed of a near-Holmesian instinct. His loving family – which figures large in this novel, and of which his wife, Joy, is the beating heart – only adds to his character, giving him huge emotional depth and appeal.

Be warned, though … this does not mean that Kubu is a soft touch. Far from it. The career copper in him loathes the ruthless criminals he so often pursues, seeing them as enemies of his people and potential destroyers of society. In Deadly Harvest, he is particularly determined to eradicate the muti superstition, which has claimed so many innocent lives in his beloved homeland.

In this cause, he is ably supported by the zealous Samantha Khama, a sometimes spiky individual, whose one Achilles heel may be that she is too quick to view Kubu’s fatherly attitude as patronisation, but who still has lots to learn, and yet whose quick wits and commitment to the job make her an ideal trainee-detective and a tireless ally when things get tricky. At the top of the CID command structure, meanwhile, sits Director Mabaku, a terse man but another likeable individual, who nicely personifies the difficulties so many senior policemen face in law-enforcement cultures the world over when they are torn between moral obligation and political compromise.

Unfortunately, I can’t elaborate too much on the villains of the piece. Because in many ways, Deadly Harvest is an archetypical (and yet at the same time very different kind of) whodunit, and the real baddies stay hidden throughout much of the narrative. Suffice to say, they are colourful and terrifying in equal measure, but they wouldn’t have half the impact if they didn’t combine the worst elements of two entirely different worlds: the arcane devilry of ancient myth, which to believers can reach you at any time and in any place, and the worst wiles of Modern Man, wherein self-advancement is everything and the losers can simply be damned.

Michael Stanley in actual fact is two authors working together: Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. Both are native Africans, so perhaps it’s no surprise that they handle this ‘black magic’ aspect of the novel with great skill and sensitivity. Muti murders are still a major problem in some parts of Africa, with entire police squads in that part of the world dedicated to locating the missing and bringing those responsible to justice. Despite this being the 21st century, it seems that the pernicious cult has something of a hold on the African imagination: in Deadly Harvest, even the enlightened Kubu occasionally wonders what he’s dealing with. Curious and unexplained things do happen, which in any community at the end of its tether could easily be attributed to supernatural agencies, so it’s no surprise that on occasion he struggles to find allies even among his fellow police officers.

At no stage, though, do you get the impression that this malignancy has its claws deeply rooted in Botswana. Kubu and Khama are the living proof of that, a pair of brave and resourceful cops who are determined to confront this age-old wickedness, knowing (or at least gambling) that their vindication will come when they bring the witch doctor and his acolytes to book through the normal procedures of everyday law.

Deadly Harvest is an inspiring read. Tense but enjoyable, and populated with delightful characters. I guarantee you will never view sub-Saharan Africa in the same way again.

And now, as always, I’m going to suggest my own choice of lead cast should Deadly Harvest ever make it to the screen (though of course, that could only happen if other Kubu stories got there first, this particular novel being the fourth in the series). And what fun they would have shooting it; I mean, you couldn’t do anything other than go to the actual place, could you? Anyway, here are my picks:

Detective David ‘Kubu’ Bengu – Nonso Anozie (the role he was born to play, I swear)
Detective Samantha Khama – Nathalie Emmanuel
Joy Bengu – Naomie Harris
Director Mabaku – Djimon Hounsou
Bill Marumo – Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje
Joshua Gobey – Louis Cordice

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