Three crime fiction books set in Africa

Adieu Oran by Ahmed Tiab (2019) (Adieu Oran)

Hunting Down the Shrew by Florent Couao-Zotti (2017) (La traque de la musaraigne)

The Head Chopper Case by  Moussa Konaké. (2015) (L’affaire des coupeurs de tête.)

I’ve always loved to explore other countries through crime fiction. These books usually take you out of the bourgeois society and show you the dark side of a place, the one you won’t find in a tourist guide. I’m also more and more interested in reading Francophone literature, to see how French sounds in other countries. I’m not talking about Belgium or Switzerland here, their French is really close to the one from France, itt is more about French from Québec or Africa.

It wasn’t deliberate but I ended up reading three crime fiction books set in Africa in three weeks. All come from former French colonies, which explains why they are written in French.

Ahmed Tiab is an Algerian writer born in 1965. He lives in the South of France since 1990. Florent Couao-Zotti was born in Benin in 1965. He’s a writer and a journalist. Moussa Konaté (1951-2013) was a writer from Mali. These three books have first been released by independent publishers, Les Editions de l’Aube for Ahmed Tiab, Les Editions Les éditions Métailié for Moussa Konaté and Jigal Polar for Florent Couao-Zotti.

Now, the books!

Adieu Oran, as the title suggests, is set in Oran, a big city on the Mediterranean, west from Algiers. It features Tiab’s recurring character, the commissaire Kémal Fadil.

Adieu Oran is hard to sum up because the plot isn’t really straightforward. We have Chinese workers murdered in Oran and human trafficking. Fadil’s girlfriend Fatou is an emigrant from Niger and she works as a nurse for a non-profit organization in Oran. Along with other migrants, she’s kidnapped and sent to the South of Algeria to be sent back to her country.

I thought that the plot was a bit messy and we were following the murder of the Chinese and then left this case a bit behind to run after Fatou who was kidnapped. Note that, like in Yeruldelgger by Ian Manook, the crime involves Chinese businessmen who run business out of their country, import their own workers, work according to their own ways and have their ambassy meddling in the investigation, bypassing the local police.

Tiab delivers a scathing portrait of Algeria with corrupted and inept politicians. Nothing runs well and the population’s needs are never met, the country paralyzed by former military men whose resume is reduced to having fought against the French for the country’s independence. This act of glory is enough to maintain them in power and hush up any criticism.

Tiab also shows how the Islamists have set roots in the country, importing their vision of Islam from the Middle East. He sums up Algeria that way, in a pessimistic statement:

Lorsque que la génération qui a fait la guerre sera éteinte, le pays entrera alors dans le XXIème siècle avec ses rejetons imprégnés d’une idéologie directement inspirée du Moyen Age. Bonjour la modernité !When the generation who has fought in the war will be dead, the country will enter into the 21st century with an offspring permeated with an ideology directly inspired by the Middle Ages. Hello modernity!

(By the way, this use of “it’s the Middle Ages” is a very European-centered point of view because at the time, in some aspects, the Arabs were more modern that the Europeans.)

Adieu Oran also takes you to into the city’s streets where the past French colonization is still palpable with the streets’ names. Even the high school where Fadil went kept its French name. Coming from a country where the 1789 revolutionaries even changed the calendar, I’m surprised that the Algerians didn’t change the street names or the name of places right after the independence to erase all traces of the French occupation and show that they regained control on their land. For example, there’s still a Michelet market.

I discovered the issue of migrants in Algeria. I wonder why I was so surprised. How dumb of me: did I think that they arrived to the shores of the Mediterranean by magic? Of course, they had to cross other African countries to end up there and Algeria is one of them. We usually hear about Morocco because it’s close to the Spanish border or Tunisia, because of its border with Libya and its proximity to the Sicilian coasts. It never occurred to me that Algeria was a destination too.

Tiab describes the discrimination against migrants and the racism of the local population against black people, migrants or not. Some characters use the derogatory term of nigrou. He also comes back to the complicated relationship between France and Algeria since the independence, through two characters, a French colon who fought with the Algerians for their independence and remained in Algeria and a mysterious women hidden behind a veil, born from the rape of her mother by a French soldier.

Adieu Oran broaches too many topics at the same time to keep the story in a straight line and it is a book I found more interesting for its context and its characters than for its plot.

The two other books I read were more plot driven.

Hunting Down the Shrew by Florent Couao-Zotti is the story of a chase and a bad case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

The book opens in a strip-club and jazz club in Porto-Novo, Benin. A Frenchman, Stéphane Néguirec has left his Brittany to settle in Porto-Novo. He’s about to leave the club with one of the dancers when she’s kidnapped on the street and he’s assaulted. His path will also cross Déborah’s, who is on the run. Stéphane accepts to hide her but they are soon attacked by criminals.

Déborah’s real name is Pamela and she left the neighboring Ghana after she participated to a hold-up that turned into a triple murder. She left with the money.

Her former partner in life and in crime, Ansah Ossey, aka Jesus Light, is the other survivor of the hold-up and he’s quite enraged that she left him and took the money. He’s after her too and we follow him on his road trip from Ghana to Benin to track her down. The novel is a double track race across Benin, Stéphane and Déborah on one hand and Jesus Light on the other hand. The reader discovers the country through the characters’ eyes.

Along the way, Stéphane, as a French, is seen as bait money by the Islamist rebels. They want to kidnap him to get a ransom and finance their war. The Islamist threat is present in this novel too, as it is in Tiab’s.

The plot was a bit confusing at times but I enjoyed the ride. Couao-Zotti has a wonderful voice, a French language that mixes the codes of Noir fiction and French from Africa.

The Head Chopper Case by Moussa Konaté is the lightest of the three books.

Set in Mali, It features Konaté’s recurring character, the commissaire Habib. The story is set in the city of Kita where several bodies of beheaded hobos are found. The local commissaire, Dembélé, is dumbfounded and doesn’t quite know where to start the investigation. They have the bodies but not their heads which complicates the identification of the victims.

A local pious man receives a out-of-the-world message about Kita being sin city and needing to atone for its sins. The souls of the ancestors are also seen up the mountain and the population, Dembélé included, is tempted to believe in an otherworldly intervention.

Commissaire Habib is more into earthly criminals and is sent from Bamako to his hometown to solve this case.

The Head Chopper Case pictures a Mali torn between traditions and modernity. Kita seems like a religious town, where the imam plays an important role, the one the Catholic church used to have in France too. Konaté describes Kita and its culture and how he and his second in command Sosso have to adapt their investigation methods to the local ways. According to the person they want to interrogate, they choose the straight police line or make a detour through polite conversation to make the person talk and not clam up in front of a policeman.

Konaté’s characters make frequent jokes about their ethnic origins. Kita is mostly of the Malinké ethnic group. The policemen Sosso and Dialo are Fulani. They throw goodhearted digs at each other but I couldn’t help wondering how this banter would turn out if the population was thoroughly manipulated by extremists.

The Head Chopper Case was written in 2015 and since then the civil war has blown up in Mali and violence seems out of control. Sadly.

So, what about these three books? I had a nice time with the three of them, they were armchair traveling. They took me to countries I’ve never been to and enriched my vision of the world.

Unfortunately, none of them are translated into English.

  1. April 10, 2022 at 6:57 am

    We briefly considered translating Konaté for Corylus but it’s tough to promote an unknown (to the Anglo world) dead writer, unfortunately. At least in crime fiction.

    Like

    • April 10, 2022 at 9:36 am

      I thought it would be a good fit for Corylus but I get your point.

      Like

      • April 11, 2022 at 8:24 am

        Yes, I did try hard to fight for it but was overruled…

        Like

        • April 13, 2022 at 9:41 pm

          You and Maria had the idea to translate him into English. He might have a chance someday.

          Like

  2. April 11, 2022 at 5:42 pm

    Konaté’s books use the differences among different ethnic groups in interesting ways. I enjoyed L’affaire des coupeurs de têtes, but I think I liked L’empreinte du renard even more. That mystery takes places in the Dogon region of Mali, and involves a civilisation so ancient that the detectives question whether they can understand it and whether they have any business interfering with it. I considered trying to translate one of Konaté’s books myself, but I’m afraid that it might run into problems, not just because he’s not well known. He also writes about a place, Mali, that’s not well known, and he does so in a way that doesn’t fit the more saleable models for writing about Africa.
    I’m so glad you wrote about these books!

    Like

    • April 13, 2022 at 9:40 pm

      Thanks for recommending L’affaire du renard, I’ll look it up.
      If you liked this story that includes Dogon culture you might enjoy L’ile des âmes de Piergiorgio Pulixi. It involves ancient cultures from Sardinia.

      PS: I bet Mali isn’t well known from your side of the Atlantic.
      France has a different relationship with this country.

      Like

  3. April 11, 2022 at 7:04 pm

    These sound fascinating. I do like African French – I used to hear it quite a lot when I lived in New Cross Gate, South-East London. In another time I would love to try one of these, however I need to work on my Spanish at the moment – and I’m pretty sure they have a literary tense I haven’t even encountered yet!

    Like

    • April 13, 2022 at 9:45 pm

      It’s a great way to discover other countries, that’s for sure.

      Nice to work on improving your Spanish . I got a crime fiction writer for you, his books are set in Bogota: S. Gamboa. I liked his character.

      Like

  4. April 13, 2022 at 10:25 am

    These do sound interesting. The only African crime fiction I’ve read is from Ghana though I have an ARC of one from Zimbabwe. As you say, they do shine a light on aspects of a society we don’t always get to see otherwise

    Like

    • April 18, 2022 at 9:00 am

      It’s an entire continent I know nothing about and I’m happy to explore bits of it through crime fiction and lit fiction. (Emmanuel Dongala’s book was great too)

      Like

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