Top critical review
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Flawed but engaging
on October 2, 2011
The plot of Nairobi Heat rips from first to last page. Taking the reader from Madison Wisconsin (of all places!) to Rwanda, where ripples of genocide still shiver through the population. It's part police procedural, part thriller and a great read. I loved the part set in Africa, where the author evokes the sights, sounds, tastes and terrors of a culture coming terms with a bloody past. He addresses a wide array of issues from survivor's guilt to celebrity humanitarianism, within the context of an engaging mystery. The main characters are very different from the usual; from Ishmael to O to Mo to Muddy. They are flawed, yet appealing.
Told in the first person from Ishmael's point of view, as the black detective who is sent to Africa to look into the background of the prime suspect in a murder and finds himself in the middle of a worldwide conspiracy. Ishmael is soon caught up in class and race war and fighting to stay alive when he thought he was simply investigating a murder. It's a sign of things to come that on his arrival in Nairobi, he's stunned to hear himself referred to as white. Frequent comparisons of skin color ("I am black, but I've never seen a man as black as he was. His skin was almost blue.") symbolize the deep societal divides still present in both Africa and the United States. This is not a long book, but it packs a lot into a few pages.
Where the book falls short, in my opinion, is in the parts set in the US, yet I think this is more an editor's fault than the author's. Ishmael grew up in Madison, a privileged middle class child, yet he refers to his living room as a "lounge". There were several such errors in American usage, but the most jarring points are Ishmael's relationship with his "Chief" and the way in which Ishmael takes the law into his own hands in Madison. These errors would have been acceptable in a book by an African author who'd never been to the US, (in Deon Meyers' Thirteen Hours, two of the characters were from Indiana, and those scenes were well-researched and effective), but from an author who was educated in and lives in the US now, they come across as lazy. It's a shame, because parts of this book are simply wonderful.