Kwei Quartey writes compulsive mysteries. I read this novella in under 24 hours. His mysteries all take place in Ghana, Quartey’s place of birth and early childhood. Quartey uses each mystery to illustrate an aspect of contemporary Ghanaian society. At the heart of his first book, Wife of the Gods, was traditional female indentured servitude in rural Ghana. His second book, Children of the Street (my favorite so far), centered on street kids in the capital city. His most recent, fourth book, Murder at Cape Three Points, centers on the oil industry.
In this novella, his third book and the only one without detective Darko Dawson, we get a glimpse of the modern aid industry. The protagonist, Paula Djan, is headmistress of a school for disadvantaged youth. Her goal is to help students transition from her school to high-quality, well-reputed secondary schools, but “spotty attendance, truancy and teenage pregnancy” all get in the way. However, the school’s international sponsors are losing patience: “Foreign donors have become stricter with their funds, and they now demand that certain criteria are fulfilled in order for the sponsorship to continue. We have to show results if we want to keep the money coming in.” This is completely reflective of the real trend in international aid for what is often called “results-based financing.” From large organizations like the World Bank to smaller non-profits, there is an increasing demand for results. On the face of it, this isn’t a bad thing. Results are good. But it can make working on seemingly intractable problems, like those faced by Paula Djan, less attractive to donors.
Beyond this context, Quartey has once again constructed a gripping mystery. A young American woman who has been volunteering at the school drowns in the pool of her hotel. The police are quick to write it off as an accident, but Paula is convinced there is more to it. She begins her own investigation, which zips along to a surprising, action-packed ending.
Downsides? First, I enjoy the way Quartey offers different perspectives in each book, but occasionally he veers too close to teaching his audience about an issue rather than seamlessly integrating it into the plot. Paula hammers home to her school’s staff, “Gone are the days when western countries tossed money at us without much thought. Now they want to see results. … We need to show that we are successfully transferring at least one-third of our students to the top middle and secondary schools every year.” This fits into the plot, and I can imagine Paula saying it, but I noticed it (“Oh, there’s the donor pressure again”) more than I wanted to. Second, without revealing too much, I felt there was an obvious, not-so-plausible gap in the investigation that made the ending not quite as satisfying as I’d hoped.
BUT the facts speak for themselves: I couldn’t put the book down. And the book costs $2.99 on Amazon Kindle. It was a good read, and I’ll definitely be reading Quartey’s next novel, God of Our Fathers, out next April.