In Spotlight this month, Africa Book Club interviews Kwei Quartey. A crime fiction writer, Quartey made the Los Angeles Times Bestseller List in 2009. The following year, the G.O.G. National Book Club awarded him the title of Best Male Author. Having published Wife of the Gods (2009), Children of the Street (2011), Murder at Cape Three Points (2014), he anticipates publication of the fourth Darko Dawson novel in the series, Gold of the Fathers, in early January 2016. Quartey currently lives in Pasedena, California.
You are a physician and a writer. When do you find the time to write?
I write early in the morning before work, waking up at 5 a.m. But I’m also fortunate that quite early in my medical career I was able to opt for outpatient work only, meaning I don’t take night calls and my work hours at the clinic are regular and predictable. Although I did work for years on the weekends, I no longer do that and I get Wednesdays off. So I do get time. Nevertheless, I still need more if I’m to attain my goal of publishing one novel a year, but that’s going to be quite challenging. I’m working on it, though.
Do you find aspects of one informing the other? In what ways, for instance, does your writing impact your medical practice and vice-versa?
Readers will always notice a generous sprinkling of medical material in my novels, whether it is a description of a wound (my particular medical specialty) or the details of an autopsy. These come naturally to me as a physician when I’m writing my novels, and I can’t escape putting those details in. I don’t think my writing contributes to my medical practice, but oddly enough, I can both compartmentalize the two activities and do them at the same time. That is to say, plot points in my story might occur to me while I’m practicing medicine on a day to day business, but it doesn’t interrupt what I’m doing at the time. Having said that, though, I don’t pretend that tearing myself away from writing an intense scene in a story in order to start work at the clinic is not a painful, quite jarring process, because it means surfacing from the depths of the subconscious, where both dreams and creation takes place, and coming out into the more concrete world of clinical practice.
So how did you get into writing? Why crime fiction?
I was writing short stories and novellas by the time I was eight or nine years old, and by then I was already drawn to crime fiction. My parents had hundreds of books at home, both fiction and non. There were no African crime fiction writers (especially for children,) so it had to be Enid Blyton, the prolific British children’s writer; Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes’ creator), Ian Fleming, and others. I don’t know why crime fiction. I don’t overthink it, but I remember that my best childhood friend and I set up a kind of detective agency dedicated to solving small mysteries, like which classmate pulled what prank on whom, or who swiped someone’s pen or English textbook. I think we solved one case successfully.
Murder at Cape Three Points is your latest book, and the third in the Inspector Darko series. Ghana seems an unlikely setting for a crime novel (let alone three and counting). Wouldn’t you agree?
I’ve always said I want Ghana to be the new Sweden—or Iceland. In other words, insert Ghana into the international crime fiction zeitgeist even if people don’t associate it with murder mysteries. My friend Ragnar Jonasson, who sets his crime fiction in a small Icelandic town, says there is a vanishingly small likelihood of the murders he describes actually happening in that locale.
Ghana is not quite that unlikely for crime, although homicide remains very low compared to the United States. But it has its crime, make no mistake. Enough to have a very active Homicide Division of the CID and a crime lab in Accra. I’ve been at the police hospital morgue in Accra and witnessed some quite gruesome murder cases, most of them machete-inflicted or caused by blunt force trauma to the head.
We understand a fourth book is coming out soon. What will the Inspector get up to this time?
In Gold of the Fathers coming out about 12 months from now, a Chinese illegal gold miner is found killed in an unusual and chilling manner, and as is always the case in my novels, the suspects and their possible motives are legion. It’s Dawson’s job to figure out which of them did the deed.
Alluvial or small-scale gold mining by tens of thousands of illegal Chinese miners has been a sad chapter in Ghana’s development or lack thereof, resulting in massive, widespread and wanton destruction of farmlands and forests. But it’s the collusion on the one hand and the antagonism on the other between the Chinese and the local population and their village chiefs that makes the issue so complicated and fascinating—and perfect for murder. In real life, there actually have been homicides associated with the illegal mining business. These guys are not always the most pleasant of people, and pump action shotguns are common currency for them.
Where did the inspiration for the character (Inspector Darko Dawson) come from?
The rough prototype was based on a French documentary about a rural detective in Côte d’Ivoire who used superstition to scare his suspects into confession, but the character became more refined as I familiarized myself with the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) in Ghana, as well as some further adjustments and smoothing out of the character. It has taken a few years to get to know Inspector Darko better, and sometimes he’s still a little bit of a mystery to me. Often I’m not sure what he’s going to do next. I like him a lot, though.
Tell us about your childhood. Where did you grow up? What are some of your fondest memories?
I grew up on the campus of the University of Ghana, where my mother and father were lecturers. There are many fond memories, which are always vividly evoked whenever I visit the university, which is two or three times a year nowadays. It felt open and free, with generous green space between houses and pleasant rolling terrain as well as unexplored savanna forest on the outskirts of the campus. When the mango and guava trees fruited in abundance, friends and I would climb up to avail ourselves of the bumper crop, and then sit down and eat them till we were almost sick. I remember Saturday mornings strolling to the university bookshop to browse for hours; or speeding with my brothers on our bicycles down the hill on which much of the campus is built; attending the student debates often held in the auditorium; or meeting associates of my father’s, such as a young, soft-spoken Wole Soyinka. I loved school as well, and still remain strongly in touch with my alma mater secondary school, Accra Academy. It was an enriching childhood without a doubt, for which I am grateful.
Any personal influences? Which writers out there have inspired you most?
The deduction prowess of Sherlock Holmes still grips me, but I have always admired Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, who always knows something is wrong but can’t quite put his finger on it until it suddenly hits him what he has been missing all along.
What advice would you give to upcoming writers?
Do keep at it and remember you’re not doing it for money. You’re doing it first because your soul needs to do it, and second because you want people to read what you’ve written.
We usually ask authors to choose a book or two for our readers (other than your own). What book about Africa or by an African author would you recommend?
Okey Ndibe’s recent novel, Foreign Gods, Inc.; Mukoma Wa Ngugi’s Nairobi Heat; and Helon Habila’s Oil on Water.