Writer and blogger Seymour Jacklin brings us an insider’s take on Hell’s Gate, Richard Crompton’s fresh look at Africa through the eyes of his Maasai detective hero.
Hell’s Gate makes fine ‘literary cinema’. Not only is it crying out to be filmed, but it plays in the mind of the reader like good movie. With deft scene cuts, cleverly dissolved flashbacks that echo points in the narrative, it winds up to a climax of hairpin turns in the plot as treacherous as the road up to the Kikuyu escarpment that is one of its most mesmerising features.
The cinematic Kenyan vistas of the Rift Valley and Lake Naivasha are the setting for no less grand themes than human corruption, tribal history, revenge and justice – a matrix in which the hero, Detective Constable Mollel, is a promontory of moral impeccability. He has returned to his Maasai homeland after his stance on corruption has made him enemies in the capital, seen him demoted from Sergeant and sent to the simmering outpost of ‘Hell’, which is locally named after the nearby ‘Hell’s Gate’ national park.
The dialogue snaps back and forth between the characters in the cast in which all the major tribes and tongues of the nation are represented, along with others vying for a slice of the Kenyan pie: the Chinese, and even a sunburned Afrikaner. There’s a sense of history and culture in cycles of assimilation and conflict, outlined by the author in a way that not only gently educates the reader but plays an essential part in the story.
We quickly learn to mistrust just about everyone we meet. The characters are painted with a few brushstrokes of description, their deeds and words left to do the rest in perfectly paced ‘reveals’ as the story progresses. Everybody has dark secrets, not least the tortured hero, Mollel. His own sanity and reliability even seem to be questionable; there are hints that his temper is on a short fuse, and his conception of the law is pragmatic: ‘Despite his reputation as a whistle-blower, Mollel has never been a great believer in rules. Justice, he has always felt, is self-evident. It is something eternal, more powerful and more significant than the human society which attempts to define it, and bind it with rules and laws.’
At points in the story, we hear the distinct voices of Kenya, all in some way linked to this theme and authenticating its Africanness. The author’s background in journalism lends a robust legitimacy to these voices. Why should the rightful tribal owners of the land not be allowed to kill the animals that live on it? Why should vigilantism not serve the purposes of justice better than a corrupt bureaucratic system? Should history have any say in the future?
In spite of the seriousness of these questions, a wry humour surfaces in the telling of the tale which, again, feels very African. From the unwanted attention that Mollel receives from a female witness, to the affectionately outlined descriptions of motor vehicles in various states of repair and the coarse banter of Mollel’s police colleagues, there’s a sense that you have to laugh despite unrepeatable tragedies, nevertheless repeated.
I hope that Detective Mollel will stride across the screen of my mind again. This book will have a good savour for lovers of crime fiction and lovers of Africa. But, if anything, it has the essence of a good Western, and a comparison with Raymond Chandler would not be amiss – except, in these pages, the ‘cowboys’ go in tyre-rubber sandals and are wrapped in the chequered blankets of the Maasai.
Hell’s Gate is available in paperback from Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Richard Crompton is an ex-BBC journalist who moved to East Africa several years ago with his wife, a human rights lawyer who worked on the Rwanda genocide trials. Hell’s Gate is his second novel. To find out more, visit www.richardcrompton.com.
Seymour Jacklin is a freelance writer and content designer based in the north-east of England. Born and raised in Zimbabwe, generating text is his profession and the most persistent of his hobbies, which also include folk music and walking the dog. He blogs at seymourjacklin.co.uk, podcasts his own fiction at bordersofsleep.com and tweets as @seeingmore.