Not since John Le Carre’s “The Mission Song” have I seen such a loving and sorrowful portrait of modern Africa. Thomas H. Cook leads a safari into the heart of the culture, showing how the misguided efforts of outsiders have helped destroy the parts that were functioning, albeit not in ways we might recognize.
The murder of an African man in New York sends an American back to the country where he was a young, idealistic aid worker in his youth. Ray Campbell, now a risk assessment expert, finds that the trip brings up disturbing memories of his time in Lubanda, when he unwittingly betrayed the woman he loved.
The brutality and desolation make it a dark read, but a worthwhile one because of Cook’s poetic style and because of the chance to delve into a culture we don’t understand all that well.
Some of my favorite new characters, county prosecutor Bell Elkins and Sheriff Nick Fogelsong, return for a third installment of Julia Keller’s series set in rural West Virginia. A couple of violent deaths have the community of Acker’s Gap jumping at shadows and Elkins and Fogelsong trying to calm fears about a possible serial killer.
We also follow a young convenience store clerk who has built a basement refuge for her father, a former coal miner, that resembles the cramped dark of the mines. His increasing disconnect from reality has his daughter worried that he could be the killer.
Keller contrasts the poverty of the region with the opulent lifestyle of the state’s former governor, who grew up in Acker’s Gap, and shows us how the have-nots continue to admire the haves even as they take more and more from those who can least afford it.
I opened this book looking forward to seeing how the Demarkians’ apartment renovations were going, and that made me wonder if I might not be too entrenched in the series. But without that level of investment I wouldn’t have felt the enormity of the arrest of the close-knit Armenian community’s priest, Father Tibor, which is the book’s driving force.
This is no cozy escape from reality. Jane Haddam sends some characters into the maze of the foreclosure mills, fighting the Kafkaesque system created when mortgages were sliced and diced into hedge funds and then sold and resold. Others are prey to the “prisons-for-profit” system that makes harsher sentencing (for juveniles, in this case) worth someone’s while.
It’s during a hearing for a young Armenian that a judge is found dead in her chambers and Father Tibor in an extremely incriminating position. He steadfastly sticks to his right to remain silent, which wildly frustrates Gregor Demarkian and other friends who know he is covering for someone. Haddam’s characterization of the judge, making her eminently murder-worthy, would do Agatha Christie proud.