Hell’s Gate: In Conversation with Richard Crompton

To mark the publication of the paperback edition of Hell’s Gate, Richard Crompton’s second novel featuring Kenyan detective Mollel, we thought we’d get the inside track on how this enigmatic hero came to be . . .


Mollel is a complex and contradictory character: a fierce detective with a tragic past; a former Maasai warrior living in the city; a rule breaker who strives for justice. Where did your idea for Mollel come from?

Mollel is an amalgam of different people I met while doing my research. As you say, he combines two worlds, yet is not truly of either. He’s turned away from his Maasai heritage, yet it continues to define him in the police force. It’s very important that Mollel, as the reader’s eyes and ears in these complex and layered worlds, remains something of an outsider. He needs to see afresh so that the reader can, too.

When you write a novel, is it an evolutionary process or do you know exactly where you want it to go from the first page?

I always have a very strong feeling for the texture of the novel. I know the tone I want to strike, and at which point certain tensions or emotions will arise. That’s set in stone right from the start. Then it’s a question of how I strike those notes. Quite often the plot will have to change to accommodate the feeling I want to get across.

Hell’s Gate is the second book in a series featuring Mollel. Have you mapped out Mollel’s journey? Or are you on the lookout for cases and crimes that may interest your hero?

Again, I know very clearly where Mollel will go in terms of his character development, and that of those around him. I’m always on the lookout for stories to provide the backdrop to his journey, and I scour the papers daily. There’s never any shortage of material.

You’ve been living in East Africa for several years now. Do you consider Nairobi to be your home, or do you ever pine for England? What impact has living in Africa had on your writing?

I love Kenya, but still feel – like Mollel – an outsider. Increasingly I feel the same when I return to Britain. I think it has sharpened my understanding of the country I grew up in, and this is coming to the fore in some of my writing, which is set in Britain.

What’s your opinion of the Kenyan justice system, and how has this influenced your vision of Mollel?

On paper, the Kenyan justice system is a good one. In reality, it is crippled by underfunding and corruption. Mollel is supposed to be a good man in a bad system – but I hope I portray the fact that even many of those we may consider corrupt believe themselves to be motivated by good intentions. There are very few absolutes in human nature.

As a former BBC journalist, how does reporting on a story compare to writing a novel? Which form of writing do you prefer?

I love the immediacy of news reporting, and the economy of writing to pictures. I miss the daily and hourly deadline. But in terms of the autonomy of truly expressing oneself, free from editorial control or managerial diktat, there is no substitute for the novel.

Who are your favourite authors, and how have they influenced your writing?

Georges Simenon: Mollel is, in part, a homage to Maigret. I hope I have captured some of the humanity and rich characterisation of those wonderful novels. As for the classics, I would truly love, one day, to write a work with the ambition of Middlemarch or Bleak House. Let’s see.

What are you working on right now?

Mollel Book Three. I also seem to spend a lot of time changing nappies and reading stories.


Have you read Hell’s Gate, or another crime novel set in a different country and culture? How did it compare to novels set in Britain or the US? Leave us a comment, below!

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. His debut novel,The Honey Guide, is also published in W&N paperback. To find out more, visit www.richardcrompton.com.