Mukoma wa Ngugi’s first novel, Nairobi Heat, involves themes including African Americans in their relationship to Africans as well as outcomes of the Rwandan genocide, both for those who suffered and those who viewed from afar. The themes of the novel play into the tropes of detective novels in an interesting way. The moral concerns of noir detective novels are very present and densely complex, and the tone of the narration references classic hardboiled detective novels in that it is unsentimental and matter-of-fact, even when horrible events are being portrayed. The main difference from classic American hardboiled novels is that most of the story takes place in Nairobi, called “Nairobbery” by a local detective.
African-American police detective Ishmael Fofona (“Call me Ishmael”) is assigned a case in which a dead young white woman is found on the doorstep of a famous African professor, Joshua Hakizimana. Hakizimana saved a thousand lives in the Rwandan genocide, and started a multimillion dollar charity. An anonymous tip causes the Madison, WI police department to send Ishmael to Kenya, where the charity is based. His local guide is nicknamed “O.” In Nairobi, Ishmael encounters a range of characters at all levels of Kenyan society, from a group of young thugs to a wealthy white man who, hiding out in his mansion and protected by white South African mercenaries, mockingly pretends to be a rural African while still holding on to his privilege. Ishmael is forced to make hard choices that, it’s implied, are a direct result of Kenyan political conditions, such as rescuing a young girl from rape only to be forced into killing those who defended the rapist.
Seeing through Ishmael’s eyes, the reader is given an outsider’s view of Nairobi, with local, sometimes contrasting, opinions provided by O. Ishmael has a tendency to use what he experiences in Nairobi as synecdoche for Africa as a whole. This technique provided some fascinating intersectionality to the narrative.
As a mystery reader, I was thrown out of the story more than once by the fantastical nature of the murder case. Used to reading police procedurals, I had a hard time believing that the victim remained unidentified for so long, that a small police department could afford to send one of its detectives on a short-notice flight to Africa, and that there was so little government intervention into such a high-profile case. An eventual twist, identifying the difficulty of identifying the victim, came too late to change my impression. However, these minor issues didn’t affect my overall enjoyment of the novel and its complexities.
Ishmael’s first-person narration sets him up as a classic hardboiled detective, with the added characteristic of providing insight into how Americans, and specifically African-Americans, view Africa and its people. While in Africa, he reflects upon his position in society back in America, adding depth to the moral narrative. Reinforcing this, repeatedly Africans call him mzungu, which means white man. Ishmael is enraged by their expectation that because he is American, he is not like them. Later, a plot twist based on similar expectations is an important part of the plot.
Ishmael is a hardboiled narrator, but several times O proves to be even more hardboiled and fatalistic, calling himself a “philosopher,” and by his actions showing himself to be much more ruthless. Ishmael, who vomits after each time he kills someone, is
perhaps intended as commentary on political realities faced in Africa but not by Americans. This type of contrast to reinforce the novel’s theme was, for me, the most interesting part of the novel, and rewarded my reading.