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Black Star Nairobi, by Mukoma Wa Ngugi.

September 27, 2013

Black Star Nairobi, by Mukoma Wa Ngugi.  Melville International Crime (2013), Paperback, 272 pages.

An exciting detective story set against the backdrop of violence in Kenya and its international connections which raises political and moral questions about “doing good.”

Mukoma Wa Ngugi is the son of legendary Kenyan writer, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o.   Born in the United States, he grew up in Kenya and affirms his citizenry there as well as in the US.  In addition to being a novelist, his identity includes that of poet, political reporter, commentator for the BBC, and scholar.  He cares about the craft of writing and believes that writing is valuable not only for its message, but also the sheer beauty it can create.

The ethnic violence in Kenya around the election of 2007 is the setting for his Black Star Nairobi.  Ishmael, an African American living in Kenya, and his friend O, short for his tribal name Odhiambo, run a small detective agency.  They are called in to solve the murder of a man left in the forest near Nairobi.  Almost immediately a massive hotel bombing occurs in the middle of the city, a bombing which is somehow connected with the murdered man.  Ishmael and O are caught up with the investigations being run by the CIA and the American embassy.  Their case takes them to Mexico and the United States before returning to Kenya to resolve the crime.

Not all the action is political and violent, however.  Muddy, Ishmael’s lover, is a performing artist and a poet, like Mukoma himself.   Family and ethnic loyalty are central for the Kenyans and in the novel.  As the detectives work to find the bombers, the author takes readers through a range of global problems: political instability and corruption, drugs and smuggling, and the ethnic hatred which unleashes “intimate violence” against neighbors.  He writes about extreme situations where many actors share the blame.


In the end, Ishmael and O discover the group that bombed the hotel and stop them, at least for a time, from further violence.  They are a group of men who hold high administrative positions working under world leaders, conservative and progressive. Because they stay in place when leaders change, they hold the real power.  They have decided that African countries will benefit if they kill off all their leaders and create a whole new leadership class.  Kenya is where they are beginning to activate their plan.

Mukoma does not attack American foreign policy.  Instead he has created a fictional world in which he reveals the underlying problem with powerful actors setting out to use violence to “improve” conditions in a particular nation.  His characters make a convincing argument for killing people in the name of doing good.  Ishmael and O see their point, but in the end they refuse to cooperate to wipe out the Kenya’s leaders.  Violence can never be ended.  How is the killing he does as a detective so different from the killing that his enemies do?   With a name borrowed from Moby Dick, he remains on his own quest for identity and meaning.

In discussing his novel on National Public Radio, Mukoma explains why he chose to write a detective story.

I do have this attraction to the form because with the form you can do so much. Not only can you tell a very, very entertaining story … but you can explore societal issues. In this case I look at the war on terror, the violence coming from the war on terror, the post-electoral violence. … It allows you to look at very, very extreme situations, extreme violence, a society just about to explode in a way that I don’t think you can do with realist fiction. [The rest of the interview is available here.]

Black Star Nairobi is a sequel to Mukuma’s Nairobi Heat.  Although I have not read the first book, I found I no problem in understanding and enjoying the second one.  The only unanswered question I had was how and why Ishmael had gotten to Kenya.  I will have to go back and read the first novel to find out.  Both books are part of interesting Melville Books International Crime series.  I am grateful to Melville Books for providing me with an ebook version of this book.

I strongly recommend Black Star Nairobi to all readers who have a bit of tolerance for violence, drugs and other actions often defined as illegal.  Mukoma has written a fine book which provokes thought at the same time it entertains.  He is a gifted writer.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. aartichapati permalink
    September 28, 2013 8:49 pm

    Mysteries set in other areas of the world are a genre I want to read more of. I think Colin Cotterill writes mysteries set in Cambodia in the 1970s, but this one sounds interesting to me because it’s actually by someone who is from Kenya.

    • September 30, 2013 6:23 pm

      They are some of my favorite reading. Malla Nunn has some very good ones set in her homeland of South Africa. See my reviews.

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