Author Interviews


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

If you are a lover of mystery novels, then you may want to make some room on your bookshelf - there's a new detective in town. Inspector Darko Dawson works with Ghana's criminal investigations department. A young medical student who is volunteering for an anti-AIDS program is found murdered deep in the forest in Ghana's remote interior region. It's a place Darko knows well - his aunt and uncle live there - and many years earlier, his mother disappeared during a visit.

Darko Dawson is the creation of Dr. Kwei Quartey. "Wife of the Gods: A Darko Dawson Mystery" is his first novel. And he's in the studios of KPCC in Pasadena, California. Welcome to the program.

Dr. KWEI QUARTEY (Author, "Wife of the Gods: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery"): Thank you, Liane. It's really wonderful to be talking to you.

HANSEN: Give us a thumbnail sketch of Darko.

Dr. QUARTEY: Well, he's a man driven, I think, by a strong sense of justice and sometimes he takes it on his own path, and I think he gets a little bit out of hand. What motivates him to be this way is a strong identification with those who are downtrodden or disadvantaged. And he has a little bit of belligerence against the powers that be.

HANSEN: In the course of the investigation into the student's murder, he encounters a village high priest who has several of what are called trokosi or wife of the gods. This is the title of the book. Who are these women?

Dr. QUARTEY: Well, among a very small population in Volta Region, there are women or girls sometimes who are given over to a kind of shaman, actually, who serve in these shrines. And the reason for it is to atone for some kind of wrongdoing or crime committed in that family, sometimes even generations ago. And the idea is that by serving they will prevent any retribution from the gods as a result of this crime committed.

HANSEN: And by serving, it's essentially taking care of this high priest who is really a piece of work. And he basically has the advantage of all these virgins being brought to him on a regular basis.

Dr. QUARTEY: Yeah, he profits from them, actually. I mean, they do a lot of hard work for him. And once they've reached puberty, he has sex with them. And so, in my particular story, one of the wives of the gods whose name is Efia or Afia - she is only 30 and she already has a 14-year-old girl because she had her first child at the age of 16.

HANSEN: And there is this conflict then, because much of the theme of the book is the coexistence in Ghana of modern medical science and traditional healers and priests. You involved Inspector Dawson in this because his son has a congenital heart defect - a hole in his heart - and he and his wife are trying to save money to get the surgery.

But the child's grandmother, Gifti(ph), decides to take him to a traditional healer, and he's put into a bath with special herbs. And it ends up the boy being injured because he ends up fighting and cracking his head on the side of the steel tub. So, you know, it's like that conflict exists in almost that one scene.

Dr. QUARTEY: I understand that something like 70 to 80 percent of Ghanaians have at one point accessed the care of a traditional healer. And it was the very representation of that conflict in that scene that's fascinating when the healer put his ear to the boy's chest and he heard what we would call a heart murmur because of the congenital defect in the boy's heart.

His interpretation was that evil spirits were living in the boy's chest and passing through an open door back and forth and making this noise. And that they were taking his breath away. So, it's a completely alternative explanation for something that we would look at in pure physical terms. And that just fascinates me.

HANSEN: And Darko, your inspector, in investigating the murder comes up against all these people who are saying, oh, well, it was witchcraft. The gods were very displeased with her for messing with our high priest, even though what she's trying to do is explain to these women that, you know, they could very well get HIV simply because, you know, here's this one guy who's sleeping with all of these women.

Dr. QUARTEY: Yeah. And even HIV, the illness itself might have been explained on the basis of witchcraft. When I paid a visit to Ghana in February 2008 to do some research for the book, even I got something of a veiled threat from a representative of these priests who made mention of, well, you know, if you write anything evil about this, you know, the gods may take retribution on you. So, I guess I better watch out.

HANSEN: Or not.

Dr. QUARTEY: Or not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Or not. Do you think there's a connection between the practice of medicine and the writing of a mystery novel?

Dr. QUARTEY: Oh, I think so. There are so many direct correlations. For example, when a detective interviews a suspect or a witness, it's very much like a physician interviewing a patient, because a patient comes in with something, which is often a mystery on its own. And as you talk to the patient, you do the physical exam and get the laboratory tests, you're collecting clues.

And then, in the end, when the doctor makes his diagnosis, it's exactly like the detective finding the culprit. And it's a very similar feeling of triumph, too.

HANSEN: You're planning to write a series of Darko Dawson mysteries. How's the second book coming along?

Dr. QUARTEY: Very well. I'm past the halfway mark, and I'm hoping to have something for the publishers by February 2010.

HANSEN: If these books become, you know, really successful, will you continue to practice medicine?

Dr. QUARTEY: Practicing medicine keeps you in touch with people's pain, and you need to be able to feel people's pain when you write. Almost every page is imbued with some kind of emotion. And I think practicing medicine is a way to keep in touch with that kind of emotion.

HANSEN: Dr. Kwei Quartey is the author of "Wife of the Gods: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery," published by Random House. He joined us from the studios of KPCC in Pasadena, California. Thank you so much. Good luck.

Dr. QUARTEY: Thank you. It was a great pleasure. Thank you, Liane.

HANSEN: And you can read about Efia, one of the wives of the gods, in Kwei Quartey's novel at our Web site

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