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BAIT by Nick Brownlee: Book Review

A friend recently sent me an e-mail about the current craze for international mysteries.  It seems that publishers are rushing all over the globe to find the next Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and they’re including the African continent in their search.  I don’t know if Bait will be among the next world-wide best sellers, but it’s certainly a fascinating, well-written thriller that looks deeply into a country not too well known to most American readers.

Kenya is a country that has been independent for decades, but it is a country that has been rife with tribal rivalries, riots, crime, and corruption in recent years. Enter Mombassa detective Daniel Jouma, perhaps the only honest cop in that city.  Enter from the other side of the stage ex-detective Jake Moore, who left England five years ago after a bullet wound and ended up in Mombassa running a charter fishing boat with a partner.  But now Moore’s business is in deep financial trouble, and his partner Harry is dealing with some very dangerous characters in order to keep afloat (pardon the pun).

The book opens with the death of another fishing boat captain, Dennis Bentley, and his young African assistant in a suspicious explosion that the police of the nearby city of Malindi are quick to call an accident.  What follows is another string of murders, all seemingly unconnected but which are, in fact, part of the underworld of Mombassa. When Bentley’s daughter Martha flies in from New York to see about her late father’s business and learn the details of his death, more murders and attempted murders follow.  There’s an unsavory cast of characters in Mombassa–an unctuous hotel owner, a former South African policeman kicked off the force for brutality in the post-apartheid days, a city crime boss who thinks he’s benevolent because instead of murdering one of the prostitutes he controls he merely cuts off one of her fingers–all of whom are involved in the city’s corrupt ways.  And then Martha’s boyfriend flies in from New York despite her wishes, bringing a new set of of complications.

The corruption in Mombassa is deep and wide and reaches throughout the country and abroad.   Where there’s money to be made, apparently, there’s no level too low to go to in order to get a piece of the action.  But as is made clear in the book, corruption is an equal opportunity employer.  Although we see the effect of crime in Kenya, the repercussions actually reach around the world to Europe and America.  No country’s hands are clean, it seems.

Brownlee’s characters are well-described and their motives are realistic. There are some clear lines between “good” and “bad” behavior and some fuzzy ones, as is true in life.  The author’s description makes the city and its people come alive, and the poverty that is almost everywhere makes the corruption easier to understand, if not to justify.  Two other books follow Jouma and Moore’s adventures in Mombassa, and I hope there will be more.

Jouma and Moore are an interesting pair, reminding me in some ways of a latter-day Kramer and Zondi by James McClure, an excellent series that takes place in pre-apartheid South Africa.  I hope Nick Brownlee will follow in McClure’s footsteps and give readers more insight into another African country.

You can read more about Nick Brownlee at his web site.

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