I recently met South African novelist Michael Sears in Melbourne for a chat. Michael is a part of writing duo ‘Michael Stanley’ with fellow writer Stanley Trollip, who grew up in South Africa and splits his time between South Africa and the United States.
Michael was in Australia on tour for the latest Michael Stanley novel Death of the Mantis, the third in the Detective Kubu crime mystery series.
Michael discussed how he and Stanley (Stan) met while both studying at the university of Minnesota. As two expat South Africans living studying at the same US university, the became friends. As friends, they later returned to South Africa, and took some flights over Botswana together. It was during one of these flights that they began to discuss how a body could almost disappear without a trace in the Kalahari desert; between the weather conditions, jackals, etc. Then they began to wonder why someone might want to get rid of a body completely. Neither of them were involved in writing or storytelling at the time, but (after a number of years of casualling discussing the idea here and there) they decided to write a story.
Michael explained how he and Stan had initially just thought they would write the story down for the sake of telling a story and maybe put it on the internet for people to read and enjoy. Once the story was complete, Michael sent it around and got the attention of an agent in New York, who sent it to major publishers and secured a publishing deal for the first Detective Kubu novel, A Carrion Death.
Michael discussed that, while he and Stan are both big readers of crime fiction, their research for the Detective Kubu novels was focussed on studying people and locations where the books were set. For example, in researching for Death of the Mantis they studied nomadic Kalahari bushmen. (Nomadic people of the Kalahari Desert are known by a range of names, but Michael and Stan have gone with ‘bushmen’, and they provide an explanation of this choice in an Author’s Note in Death of the Mantis. ‘Bushmen’ is not intended with any implications about male or female, as in the case of the term ‘mankind’.) Michael explained how their research involved meeting Kalahari bushmen (despite the difficulties in using interpreters, meeting up with nomadic desert dwellers, etc) and not relying on academic depictions of Kalahari bushmen, which Michael said can often tend to have inaccuracies and be slanted significantly by the influence of ideas held by the academics.
They visited villages in the Kalahari and Michael discussed how a visit to a group of several small villages (Luhututu, Hukuntsi, Tshane and a fourth smaller one, connected by roads like a triangle) featured in Death of the Mantis inspired a scene from the novel because there is one petrol station for the group of villages and Michael described how he found himself driving around trying to find fuel.
The fact that the authors have been to the locations they are writing about, met the people and lived in that environment lends authenticity to their depictions of the characters and settings in their novels, as they get the nuances right.
Death of the Mantis reads like a solid crime or psychological suspense novel, independently of any interest in the setting or the people of Botswana. It will also be of interest to readers coming to it with an anthropological interest, with plenty to satisfy this interest, but with anything verging on anthropological commentary coming from the characters in the context of their personalities, their motivations and what is at stake for them in the story and not from authorial intervention in the story to provide commentary.
Many people treat fiction as firmly divided between ‘popular fiction/genre fiction’ and ‘literary fiction’ but Death of the Mantis could quite easily be embraced as either.
The New York Times wrote: Readers may be lured to Africa by the landscape, but it takes a great character like Kubu to win our loyalty.
Prominent South African novelist Deon Meyer wrote: Not only a gripping mystery but also a fascinating glimpse beneath the skin of modern Botswana […] Bursting with insights, sounds, smells and textures of the sensual African landscape, this truly is great African crime fiction.
You can read more about Michael Sears, Stanley Trollip and the Detective Kubu novels at www.detectivekubu.com and you can read more from Michael and Stan at Murder is Everywhere, a crime mystery group blog by a small group of novelists from various countries as diverse as Brazil, Greece and South Africa.
The Australian Literature Review