Thursday, October 20, 2011

Children of the Street by Kwei Quartey

Sometime last year I mentioned the Cain-prize-winning short story "Stickfighting Days" by Olufemi Terry. It's about street boys - orphaned or homeless kids - who roam the worst areas of an unnamed city in Africa (most likely Nairobi) looking to get by and take out their frustrations in a violent, deadly "king of the hill" series of stickfighting contests.

I couldn't help but think of Terry's story as I read the new mystery by Kwei Quartey: Children of the Street. In it, a serial killer is preying on the abandoned and lost street kids of Accra, Ghana, and it paints a pretty bleak picture of street life in the West African city. Quartey's detective, Darko Dawson, has a heart as big and open as any I've ever encountered in mystery fiction, and his dogged pursuit of the killer takes him, and us, on a tour of some the most startling, gutwrenching aspects of the capitol city of one of the world's fastest growing economies.

But that paragraph, the one I just wrote, gets at some of the strongest, and weakest, elements of this ultimately fascinating mystery.
In Wife of the Gods, Kwei Quartey's first Darko Dawson mystery, he pulled off an amazing stunt: he was able to explore the people and culture of Ghana, and create a fascinating hero in his detective, all foregrounded by a riveting mystery in which nothing is merely background or flavor, but everything bears down on the crimes within like an unstoppable train. It was excellent, and I eagerly awaited Quartey's follow-up.

Children of the Street is not as tightly constructed a novel - it suffers a bit from the weightiness of its subject. By this, I mean that the book bogs down a bit in the middle as we are walked through the dire realities of street life for the kids. Darko Dawson asks many questions of the social workers, kids, and others at the margins of this most marginalized life, but at times the questioning feels more like an opportunity for the author to introduce material and insight he's gained doing research for the novel (statistics, reflection on living conditions, social forces at work that have created this permanent class of underaged working poor) than the questions of a police detective hunting down a serial killer.

And this is part of my struggle with Children of the Street - it's trying to be both a fascinating, good mystery (which it is, for the most part), AND a socially-conscious, call to action for a section of Ghanian (and, let's face it, all urbanized, high-growth economy) societies. And that's good, right? But the novel can't be all things to all people, so at times it drags.

I sound like I'm complaining about a good thing, and I would be, if Quartey's first novel hadn't set such high expectations. Is Children of the Street worth reading? Yes! It's a solid mystery, anchored by a great character. And, as I say above, it does have it's flaws, but you better believe I'll be back for Quartey's next Darko Dawson mystery.

In the end, these are great novels, great mysteries, set in an oft-neglected, yet fascinating place and populated by a character not often seen in mystery fiction. Maybe in the end, like it's hero Darko Dawson, Children of the Street's only real flaw is that it has too big a heart, and isn't that the best kind of flaw to have?

Kwei Quartey's website is a great one, with book trailers, links, and information about where to get the books (he supports indy booksellers, which is always a good thing).

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