RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Time now for Crime in the City, our stories about fictional detectives, real authors and the cities where they reside. We've brought you plenty of authors who've set their fiction in cities not known for crime. It allows for that writerly device when a single heinous act shatters the semblance of civility and exposes the seedy underbelly.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Well, today's author has the opposite problem, a former journalist, he set his first novel in Nairobi, Kenya, a city that has been called Nai-robbery. As NPR's Gregory Warner reports, placing a crime novel in a crime-ridden city creates some unusual dilemmas for an author and his fictional detective.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: If not for his earlobes, Detective Mollel would cut a classic figure of the genre: moody, obsessive, a widower estranged from his son. But Mollel is a Kenyan from the Maasai tribe and the flesh of his earlobes is long and looped, stretched since childhood to hang below his jaw line.
As Richard Crompton writes in his novel "Hour of the Red God," the earlobes are a mark of pride and warriorhood among Maasai circles, but an object of ridicule and prejudice elsewhere, especially on the urbane streets of Nairobi.
RICHARD CROMPTON: Mollel was raised in a village, he was a goatherd and he's worked his way up to become a Nairobi policeman. And, bizarre as it sounds, a university-educated, white middle-class boy from England coming to Nairobi can also share some of the same experiences. We both viewed the city as neophytes, as newcomers.
WARNER: Crompton even has his fictional detective move to Nairobi the same year he did, 2006. But while Mollel came to seek a better life, Crompton came to seek a more adventurous one, becoming Kenya bureau chief for CNBC. And as bureau chief, Crompton witnessed some of the bloodiest tribal conflict in Kenyan history in the weeks following the disputed presidential election of 2007.
Crompton takes me to Uhuru Park, Freedom Park, it means. Back in 2007, this ground was commandeered by thousands of government troops.
CROMPTON: Because they knew that if there was going to be disruption, this is the largest open space that's close to parliament. This is where the civil society would gather. This would have been like the Tahrir Square of Nairobi.
WARNER: Today as we walk across the lawn, Crompton and I pass a father and son paddleboating on a pond, a field where kids are playing soccer and blankets where couples catch a discrete mid-afternoon cuddle, a charming scene until we come to a culvert.
CROMPTON: This is very like the opening scenario, like the drainage ditch where the body is found.
WARNER: There is a slang word among Nairobi police for a corpse flushed out of storm drains by heavy rain. The word is termite, and the termite at the opening of Crompton's book is a beautiful young prostitute with tribal scars that show her, like Detective Mollel, to be from the Maasai tribe. Crompton and I discover a different body.
CROMPTON: We've just come over to a culvert and seen a grown man naked, bathing in some very stinky, muddy water that's running through here. In a way, the smell is indicative of the, you know, the underbelly of the city which can exist anywhere. In fact, can we move away now? It's pretty repulsive.
WARNER: We leave the naked man, just as Detective Mollel leaves the naked woman, and head to Koinange Street, full of office workers by day, but Nairobi's red light district by night. In even in these white-collar crowds, it's easy to spot the Maasai. Ramrod straight and stick thin, they're often as not working as security guards, hired because of their tribal reputation for honesty.
Maasai are the only citizens of this city who can walk around with traditional weapons and not be stopped by police.
CROMPTON: Because it's understood that if a Maasai uses their weapons for ill intent, that they will be ostracized and they will be turned out. And their honor forbids them from doing anything like that.
WARNER: Crompton's detective is an amalgam of people, including a Maasai man who became his close friend when they both became new fathers at the same time and an ex-policeman who guided him through the city's darker alleys.
CROMPTON: I was down in some of the more gangster-ridden areas at 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning when they really come to life. That's rush hour around here. And I actually got word at one point - it got back to me - they said, if we see that mzungu down here again, that white man, his life is not going to be worth living. So I made myself scarce at that point.
WARNER: Like his creator, Detective Mollel also has his life threatened for being thorough when the dead girl's connected clues seem to implicate powerful members of Nairobi's political and business class. But as Mollel pursues her killer, his country braces for civil war. The book is set in the days before that stormy election of 2007 that Crompton witnessed as a journalist.
When he wrote "Hour of the Red God," he wanted to explore a broader theme: the value of justice in the developing world. In this scene halfway through the book, Mollel has just uncovered a critical clue, only to be yanked off the murder case by his boss, Superintendent Otieno.
CROMPTON: (Reading) What about justice? croaks Mollel. Otieno gives a sad smile. Mollel, you're in the wrong country, the wrong continent. Don't you know there's something more valuable than justice here? What? Peace. Justice is a luxury. Peace is a necessity. You want justice, move to some first-world state with sophisticated crime labs and DNA tests and judges who can't be bought off.
WARNER: Mollel is a warrior for justice in a city that would happily settle for peace. And the British author in his adopted Kenyan city, has profoundly mixed feelings about his protagonist. Living here has convinced Crompton that justice can be a luxury, a shiny principle imposed by the West that blinds us to more corrosive destabilizing forces.
So it's only at the very end of the book that the detective's devotion to Lady Justice gets a kind of defense. In this scene, Mollel is closing in on his killer, even while racing to protect his own family as post-election riots engulf the city. His way forward is blocked by rabid tribalists threatening his home with machete-like weapons called pangas.
CROMPTON: (Reading) Mollel wants to fight them. He wants to grab a panga out of one of their hands and kill them all, slash them to pieces. This is what it takes, he thinks, even as his heart is pounding. This is what it takes to make the Red God rise up inside of you. When someone threatens your family, your child, and there's no recourse to law, no appeal to order, no one will protect you and no one will stand up for you and fight on your behalf. All you can do is kill.
WARNER: If peace rates a higher value than justice, where's the recourse for human rage without strong institutions? With no place for justice, what peace can really hold? So in the end, Mollel resists the primal urge, outsmarts the tribalists, rescues his family, unmasks the killer and lives on to fight for justice in Crompton's next book," Hell's Gate," due in stores this February. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi.
GREENE: From Atlanta to Athens, Trenton to Toronto, this series has taken us on quite a journey, and we have a map showing all the places our fictional detectives call home. You can check it out at npr.org/crimeinthecity. This is NPR News.