I always have a book with me and, often, when I am asked about the book and I mention the title, the author, and the genre, the response is, “I don’t read mysteries. I don’t like Agatha Christie.” Fact is, I don’t like Agatha Christie. If that style was all there is in mystery, I wouldn’t be reading mysteries either but the popularity of the genre shows that most readers do know how far mysteries have come, incorporating societal problems into stories, making them more believable and more thought-provoking.
Michael Stanley’s DEATH OF THE MANTIS is a case in point. The body of a game ranger is found in the Kalahari desert in Botswana. When the police arrive, they find three Bushmen with the dying man, trying to give him water. Monzo has suffered a severe injury to his head and he dies before reaching the hospital. The men who discover the body are arrested for the murder. There is no evidence that the Bushmen were involved but in Botswana it is case closed, no need to look for other suspects.
Assistant Superintendent David Bengu, known as Kubu to everyone, receives a call from a childhood friend, Khumanego, a Bushmen. He and David had attended school together, drawn to each other because neither fit in. But they have lost touch over the years and each knows little about the adult life of the other. As boys, Khumanego had taken Kubu to the desert and showed him how to survive. Now Kubu tries to survive among animals of the two-legged variety and serpents more dangerous than those who hide under rocks. Khumanego is an advocate and spokesman for his people, helping the Bushmen whose life style is minunderstood and whose group is denegrated.
Khumanego tells Kubu, “The Bushmen see things very differently from other peoples….Your people see themselves as separate from everything…We see ourselves as part of everything. We are part of the sky and of the earth. And the sky is part of the earth, and the earth part of the sky. Just as day is part of the night. And night part of day. And you and me are part of each other. When you dream, you change my world, just as my dreams change yours.” Khumanego no longer remembers or appreciates any of the things he learned as a student. The two old friends no longer have common ground on which they can build the trust they had enjoyed as boys but Kubu honors the bond they had and the Bushmen are released. Before long, there are two more murders and the Bushmen have disappeared. Again, no need to look further; the Bushmen must have been the killers as first thought.
Kubu is drawn into another case, that of a missing man who had been looking for an old map. Since this is Africa, there is inevitably a search for precious stones that brings in the worst people to Botswana and brings out the worst in good people.
The books by Michael Stanley bring Botswana to life. The section of DEATH OF THE MANTIS that describes Kubu’s experience in the desert is outstanding. The sun in a desert is no longer the giver of life but an enemy ready to steal life when humans fail to acknowledge that somethings are bigger than what is conceived of in the minds of men.
Kubu makes the stories work. He is intelligent but he doesn’t let it get in the way of doing what needs to be done even if his actions fly in the face of common sense. He is devoted to his family, his wife, his new baby, his parents, and his in-laws. He knows that the family is the cornerstone of society and he does his best to make his part of the stone tight, without chinks that would undermine its integrity. He works to maintain that same integrity in his country.
The lives of the Bushmen in Botswana are becoming increasingly complicated by the desire of the government to move them to settlements which, for want of a better word, could be called reservations. Their numbers are decreasing and their philosophy that there can be no such thing as individual ownership is also similar to that of Native Americans. As a minority is a society that believes and encourages the opposite, the culture may continue to be compromised. They believe that the mantis created the world and all its people and the first of the people created were the San, a better name for the group than “bushmen.” With this belief and their connection to their ancestors through stories handed from one generation to the next, these are a people with dignity and a surety of their place in the world. The authors do not treat the Bushmen as caricatures but as people whose values are outside the norm but who may be better because of that.
The authors loosely based the murder of the game ranger on a case that occurred in Botswana and led to an examination of the death penalty. Ditshwanelo is an advocacy group working to protect human rights in Botswana. The group became involved in a case in which two men were sentenced to death for murdering a man from whom they had stolen an ox. Motswetla and Maauwe were found guilty of the murder despite having virtually no legal representation. Both men were illiterate and incapable of understanding the charges brought against them. The dates of their executions were stayed as a result of innumerable delays requested by their new lawyers. After more than ten years in prison, they were released when a judge ruled that they had been deprived of their right to a fair trial within a reasonable time.
The examination of the death penalty did not bring about its end.
All of the books in the Detective Kubu series are excellent and worth reading. What can be better than a good book that sends me off to Google to learn more? If only school had been so painless.