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Mrs. Peabody Investigates: "Zulu, the winner of the French Grand Prix for Best Crime Novel of 2008, is a highly absorbing read"

Date: May 3 2015

By chance, I’ve read two novels set in Africa recently: Caryl Férey’s Zulu (translated by Howard Curtis, World Noir/Europa Editions 2010) and Vamba Sherif’s Bound to Secrecy (HopeRoad 2015). While different to one another in many respects, both are highly interesting, worthwhile reads that explore the key theme of power in African contexts.

Caryl Férey is an intriguing author. He’s French, but chooses to set his crime novels in countries far from home, such as New Zealand (Utu), South Africa (Zulu) and Argentina (Mapuche). What unites his work is a focus on ethnic/social minorities and power structures, which are explored in gritty, noir crime narratives.

Zulu, the winner of the French Grand Prix for Best Crime Novel of 2008, is a highly absorbing read, which features the talented but psychologically damaged head of the Cape Town homicide unit, Ali Neumann. He and his team investigate the brutal slaying of a young woman in a post-Apartheid South Africa fractured by racial tension, violence and drugs crimes. The novel provides both a fascinating insight into difficult aspects of the Apartheid past (such as the rivalry between the black ANC and Inkatha movements) and contemporary challenges such as AIDS.

Unsurprisingly, there’s lots of hard-hitting violence throughout, which makes for uncomfortable reading, but is (mostly) linked to the larger social and political contexts the novel explores. On the basis of Zulu, I’m keen to read Férey’s other two works soon.

Vamba Sherif is another intriguing and very well travelled author. He was born in Kolahun, Liberia in 1973, moved to Kuwait in his early early teens, then settled in Syria and The Netherlands, where he read Law. His crime novel Bound to Secrecy is the first published by independent publisher HopeRoad, which aims to support literary voices neglected by the mainstream.

In contrast to Zulu, which is 400 pages in length, Bound to Secrecy is a compact read – more of a novella – focusing on the mysterious disappearance of paramount chief Tetese in the Liberian border town of Wologizi. In terms of its tone, the narrative also differs enormously to Férey’s work – it has an otherworldly, unsettling quality, partly due to the remoteness of Wologizi and partly due to the author’s subversion of crime conventions. Detective William Mawolo’s investigation is continually hampered by the silence of the townsfolk, the contradictory evidence he uncovers and a series of disturbing events that leave him and the reader in a state of confusion. The novel has echoes of Kafka, and the figure of Mawolo reminded me of Dürrenmatt’s compromised detectives, who seek clarity and resolution, but can’t always find them.

Unlike Zulu, Bound to Secrecy doesn’t provide detailed information about its country’s troubled history (the West African country of Liberia). Instead, it explores the central theme of power – both on those who wield it and those who are subject to it – in an elliptical, abstract way. The narrative also has some interesting things to say about gender roles and the power of women. Beautifully written, this compelling literary crime novel will draw me back for a second reading.

There’s a good interview here with Sherif, which also provides a bit of information about Liberian literature and culture.