Night Runners by Richard Crompton
Detective Mollel, the celebrated Maasai police officer of Nairobi, is again caught up in a strange case. He is approached by a young girl who believes that her older sister, Fatuma, had disappeared. The problem is that Fatuma’s parents claim that she hasn’t. But Mollel has a great sense of judgement and feels that something’s not quite right. He can’t help but pursue the matter even when it upsets the brass.
Assisted by his wearied partner, Kiunga, Mollel ventures deep into one of Nairobi’s most dangerous neighbourhoods. Dandora is a place where cops fear to tread. It’s ruled by Nicodemus, a ruthless gangster with connections in all the wrong places. It also contains the largest rubbish dump in Nairobi, so huge that as it expands it swallows up entire streets of housing. Nicodemus controls the dumping and any reclamation that goes on there. He also knows where too many of the dead bodies lie.
When Nicodemus notices Mollel at The Electric Chair, a sleazy club he owns in Dandora, he directs him to the rubbish dump and a body recently left there. The corpse is badly burnt, and resembles the descriptions given to Mollel of Fatuma. But our Maasai is wary of jumping to conclusions. Bodies turn up at the dump all the time and no one ever knows who they are. Nairobi is that kind of place.
Mollel’s investigations eventually take him to the mysterious Doctor Kanja, a witch doctor of some renown who quietly begins to help the Maasai. Kanja knows Dandora perhaps better than Nicodemus, and introduces Mollel to a very strange place or two as he explains about his personal experiences with Fatuma. It soon emerges that all is not as it would at first seem, as Mollel pulls on the threads and unravels the entire matter.
Throughout this story, we are taken through parts of Mollel’s childhood and his relationship with his younger brother, Lendeva. We learn of how they came to Nairobi together and why they parted company. We are also given the backstory of Mollel’s dead wife, Chiku, who died in the 1998 terrorist attack on the US embassy in Nairobi. It makes for an intriguing read as the layers of Mollel’s life are gradually pealed back to reveal how the man we meet came to be.
This is a fairly good read. It’s greatest asset is the setting. There are few enough books in western literature set in Africa let alone Nairobi. The location is so exotic, and new, as to grab the reader and violently hold them until the end. Unless of course you’re from Nairobi, in which case you may wish to ignore this book as it might remind you of the bleakness of life in Nairobi’s slums.
Rebel Voice doubts that Nairobi is as bad as portrayed in this novel. But there can be little doubt that the poverty is endemic and harsh. Conditions for residents in the rougher areas must be terrible. It’s an ill-divided world we inhabit and Night Runners helps to reinforce that point. The depictions of life in Kenya, particularly in its capital, are vivid and magnetic. The people are shown as both good and bad as they must surely be, in line with everywhere else. The struggle to just get by is portrayed in what would seem to be an honest manner.
The story is not without its problems though. The big one is the ambiguity surrounding the fall out between Mollel and Lendeva. We are left wondering if Lendeva and Chiku were bumping uglies and if Mollel’s son is actually Lendeva’s. OK, the overall jist would suggest that he wasn’t and he’s not, but it’s not conclusive. This is a frustrating plot point. It’s not clever, just irritating. The title is another wrinkle and has no real relevance to the main story. Small things, but could be regarded, perhaps, as sloppy.
There are a few other shortfalls concerning the culprits responsible for all the murder and mayhem which frustrate a tad but, in general, the story line is strong and as stated the location and characters are the real strength. This is part of a series, book 3 to be exact. Book one is The Honey Guide and two is Hell’s Gate. Rebel Voice can give no greater compliment to this writer than to say that we would read further adventures in the life of Mollel. Getting into a book set in Nairobi is an educational experience and if it’s good then that’s a great bonus. Mollel is a fine addition to the world of literary detectives.
Sult scale rating: 6.5 out of 10. This book is a novel experience (pun intended as I’m bored at the minute). Set in the squalor of Nairobi’s slums, it follows the investigations of a Maasai detective as he searches for a missing girl amid a growing death toll. It has gangsters, corrupt cops, family rivalries, romance, tragedy and a frigging huge rubbish dump that dominates part of the city. It’s a breath of fresh air for those who feel jaded from reading the routine stories that the literary industry spews forth. Mollel could give Jack Reacher a run for his money.
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