A second novel is always a daunting prospect for a new author, particularly one who has received rave reviews for his or her debut book. The level of expectation is so extreme that reality can be, all too frequently, a disappointment. Richard Crompton set the bar very high with his first novel, the highly praised The Honey Guide which introduced Mollel, a Maasai cop based in Nairobi, taken to the edge by personal tragedy and a dysfunctional justice system.
When Crompton’s follow-up novel, Hell’s Gate, opens, Mollel is back but things aren’t looking too good. He is in jail, literally in Hell, a small straggling township on land between Lake Naivasha and the Hell’s Gate National Park. It soon becomes clear that Mollel is working undercover ostensibly investigating corruption within the police force. Everyone is suspicious of him and he has to constantly revise his view of who he can trust. Each day adds questions. Why is his former junior colleague in town accompanied by an attractive American lawyer? Why was a female flower packer killed? Who is the mysterious Mbatiani and why does he want to kill Mollel?
Crompton slowly builds his novel with layers that give the reader the required cultural understanding without an overt history and geography lesson; endemic corruption and a do-it-yourself approach to justice; international ivory poaching and the endangered rhino (ironically the police team administering ad hoc retributive justice call themselves the Rhino Force); internal racial tensions between groups like the Maasai and the Kikuyu (“Is this what we’ve become? He thinks. Is this what it means to be Kenyan today? To constantly squabble over language and tribe and land?”); love of land and the destructive impact of dispossession; the corrosive impact of the loss of tradition and culture.
Crompton is a former BBC journalist and he uses a reporter’s eye to add wit and texture particularly in the references to Mollel growing up in the traditional Maasai family with his younger brother, and in his use of words in local dialect – the Maasai phrase for trousers means, literally, “fart catchers”. He lives in Nairobi with his wife who is a human rights lawyer (The Honey Guide focused on the investigations into the violence that accompanied Nairobi’s 2007 election).
Hell’s Gate is a sophisticated who-dunnit that has achieved much more than simply setting a crime book in an exotic setting. And in Mollel he has given the crime world a complex new flawed hero, in the style of Ian Rankin’s John Rebus, walking a wobbly line between right and legal. As second books go, Hell’s Gate exceeds expectations.
Hell’s Gate by Richard Crompton is published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson.