Kwei Quartey's first novel, Wife of the Gods, is a
dark, edgy mystery that's almost gritty enough to be considered noir. The book
is a marvelous detective procedural; its complex plot includes a plethora of
suspects and clues that will keep readers guessing the murderer's identity until
the inevitable confrontation at the book's climax. The main character,
Detective Inspector Darko Dawson, relies on deduction and observation to solve
the crime at the heart of the book. There's no room for guesswork or
coincidence in this novel; it remains eminently logical until its very
Ghana is a country in the midst of rapid change, and Quartey takes full advantage of the friction caused by this change to add another, deeper layer to Wife of the Gods. The conflict between the old and the new is a constant theme running throughout the book and a source of dramatic tension between its characters. Social commentary is added to the basic mystery format of the novel with great success, resulting in a book that is more than your run-of-the-mill whodunit.
The author also creates a perfect sense of place, whether the action is in Ghana's capital city Accra or in its countryside. Instead of establishing this ambiance with long paragraphs of description he weaves the surroundings into the narrative's action and dialog. The exotic locale functions as a colorful backdrop, adding interest without allowing the atmosphere to overwhelm or drag down the plot.
There are aspects of the book that will keep many readers from fully enjoying it. Its major failing is its relatively unlikable main character. Sometimes you can encounter a figure in literature who breaks all the rules, and you find yourself rooting for him in spite of it (or even because of it). Such is not the case with Darko Dawson. Throughout the narrative he comes off as an arrogant bully who uses his position to intimidate or harass others. He's also an unrepentant marijuana smoker who knows the drug is illegal yet chooses to disregard the law. His almost preternatural investigative ability is not quite adequate to mitigate all the bad behavior that goes along with it.
Quartey's ability to create three-dimensional characters is also somewhat inconsistent. Dawson is very richly drawn, and Quartey has gone to great lengths to help his readers understand this multi-faceted character. There are others here who are also nicely realized, but there are just as many who are utterly unremarkable, unnecessarily falling into a banal, formulaic mold. In addition, there are a number of excessively violent scenes scattered throughout the novel. While I'm not generally disturbed by brutality, there does have to be a reason for it; it has to make sense within the context of the plot - but at times, these scenes come across as overly gratuitous.
Wife of the Gods is an excellent debut, and the series shows a lot of promise; however, the comparison that some have made to The No. 1 Ladies' Detective series is misleading. Other than that they're both character-driven mysteries set in Africa, the books have very little in common. Wife of the Gods is a fine novel but it lacks the charm of the Alexander McCall Smith books (think Dashiell Hammett as opposed to Agatha Christie).
Fans of the hardboiled mystery genre will undoubtedly want to add this one to their lists. In addition, book groups that can overlook the novel's flaws will find ample topics for conversation beyond its basic plot.
Ghana is located on West Africa's Gulf of Guinea only a few degrees north of the Equator (map). The country's 23 million people are concentrated along the coast and in the principal cities of Accra and Kumasi. Ethnically, Ghana is divided into small groups speaking more than 50 languages and dialects. English, the official and commercial language, is taught in all the schools.
By West African standards, Ghana has a relatively diverse and rich natural resource base. Minerals, principally gold, diamonds, manganese ore, and bauxite, are produced and exported. In 2007, a major oil discovery off the coast of Ghana led to the entry of a number of multinational companies. Timber and marine resources are important but declining. Agriculture remains a mainstay of the economy, accounting for more than one-third of GDP and about 55% of formal employment.
The first known Europeans to visit the area were a group of Portuguese explorers in 1471, followed shortly after by Dutch and English traders who were attracted by the area's gold, ivory and slaves. There were more than forty forts along the coast by the mid-17th century. Increasing conflict with the native population, as well as events in their own countries, caused most of these traders to eventually abandon their interests in the "Gold Coast," as it came to be known, until the Dutch withdrawal in 1874 left only the British remaining, at which point the Gold Coast became a protectorate under British colonial rule. The native resistance movement continued to gain momentum in the decades that followed, which in 1957 led to the creation of Ghana from the merger of the Gold Coast and British Togoland (British Togoland was formed after a 1916 mandate partitioned the area formerly controlled by Germany into two areas run by Britain and France). Kwame Nkrumah, who had been a resistance leader, became the nation's first Prime Minister and President.
After enduring many years of coups and counter coups Ghana is now considered a relatively stable democracy. Although its economy is growing and its prospects look brighter than many parts of Africa, factors such as the estimated US$2500 per-capita annual income cause the UN to classify it as a low-income, food-deficit country.
This review was originally published in August 2009, and has been updated for the August 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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