Ghanaian Mystery Writer Says 'It's Easy To Get Murdered In Accra'
White egrets swoop down on the Agbogbloshie Canal and stoop to pick at mounds of filth and trash in search of food. The clogged and stinky waterway dominates Agbogbloshie, the main shantytown in Accra, Ghana's capital city. You wonder how the birds manage to maintain white feathers as they wade in the putrid, muddy water.
The stench of that water puts off Detective Inspector Darko Dawson, the protagonist of writer Kwei Quartey's murder mysteries set in Ghana. In 2011's Children of the Street, Quartey's second Dawson mystery, Dawson gags as he investigates the apparent murder of a young man whose body was dumped near the canal with a stab wound in his back.
A day shy of his 17th birthday, the book's prologue tells us, street boy Musa was penniless, blameless, lonely and about to die as his short life flashed before him:
"He had only wanted his life to get better. ... As Musa's eyelids fluttered closed, he must have wondered if this is what his father had meant. ... If you go to Accra, you will become nothing but a street child and you will pay a terrible price for it."
Musa hails from an impoverished family in dry, dusty northern Ghana. He moved down south to the lush, green capital city in search of work and to be able to send money home to his mother. Once there, he pushed open-top carts around the streets, ferrying heaving loads as a "truck pusher," a job that left him exhausted at the end of the long working day.
A Preference For 'Sad And Poignant' Crime Scenes
D.I. Dawson is a 6-foot-something good-looker with a heart of gold when it comes to his family and a dogged determination to hunt down miscreants and murderers, especially looking out for society's castoffs, such as street kids.
His seniors consider him demanding, pushy, over-confident and sometimes arrogant.
His Achilles' heel is a penchant for marijuana, or "wee," as it's called in Ghana. Dawson is desperately trying to kick the habit, but he can't resist puffing on a spliff when he finds himself unable to solve the riddle of the serial murders of Accra's homeless children. Like Musa, all the victims, including a young woman, end up in abject misery even after their deaths, tossed into dumpsters, sitting upright in public latrines and worse.
Quartey says he prefers "sad and poignant" crime scenes. From a crime fiction writer's standpoint, he says, you can say more that way. "Besides the awful fate that you [the victim] have come to, as you've been either butchered to death, or shot or what have you, that you should die in a place that is so filthy, it's almost as though you've been further humiliated."
An Easy Place To Be Murdered
Born to a Ghanaian father and an African-American mother, Quartey was raised in Accra before heading to medical school in the U.S. Both urban and rural Ghana serve as the backdrop to his crime stories.
The first in the D.I. Dawson series was 2009's Wife of the Gods. Murder at Cape Three Points, the third Dawson mystery, was published last spring.
Children of the Street, Quartey's second Dawson book, concentrates on the neighborhoods of Old Accra, on the coastal curve of the Atlantic Ocean. Ghana was the first of Britain's West African colonial conquests to gain independence in 1957. Quartey makes it a point to personally research his murder locations during trips to Ghana from the U.S., where he remains a practicing physician.
As loud car and truck horns blast through the air, Quartey explains his fascination with Accra, which he describes as a high-energy, rules-meant-to-be-broken kind of place in some areas, that he — and Dawson — both find entertaining yet exhausting.
"Sensory overload! The sounds, the smells and the sights — sometimes so much that your brain gets tired," says Quartey. "But it is a perfect location for murders of all kinds because, in many ways, for example at nighttime, the city becomes very quiet and deserted and certainly very dark."
That's when the hustle and bustle, traders and street vendors — selling everything from mangoes to carpets and cutlery — have disappeared for the day. In the dead of night, Quartey says, "in some ways it's easy to get murdered in Accra — and you might be ignored for a while. The police may not find you for a little while."
But Dawson's innate sixth sense sometimes leads the detective off track. He agonizes when he hauls in the wrong suspect and has to release them. That's when his loving family steps in to calm Dawson down. His two sons — an adopted former street boy named Sly and the plucky but ailing Hosiah, or "Champ" — and his wife are supportive.
"Christine is a smart, attractive woman who is a teacher, and she provides a lot of insight for him," Quartey says. "Although she is not a cop, she's a stabilizing force for him since he can sometimes go off the rails."
Quartey says when Dawson gets depressed, "it's sometimes Christine who gets him out of it. She's a quiet backbone."
More And More Ghanaian
In the end, D.I. Dawson and his sidekick, Philip Chikata, get their killer in Children of the Street — and go on to new challenges.
Quartey, who's learning Ghana's lingua franca, Twi, tells NPR that Ghanaian customs, values and language will feature more prominently in his next crime novel, in which D.I. Dawson investigates a dead body and the murky world of illegal gold mining.
"With gold, it seems almost a crazy, craven rush for wealth from that famous glinting yellow metal," Quartey says. "Yes, it's a totally different world for him."
Gold of the Fathers is due out next spring.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Most of us do not enjoy going to the doctor's office. But it turns out you can earn money doing that. Standardized patients are people who take on fake identities and health issues in order to help train medical students. As part of our series on odd jobs for teens, Maine Public Radio's Patty Wight introduces us to one teenager who says this odd job is a perfect match for her.
PATTY WIGHT, BYLINE: Some of us are lucky enough to stumble into jobs that we love. That was the case for 16-year-old Gabrielle Nuki. She'd never heard of standardized patients, until her adviser at school told her she should check it out.
GARIELLE NUKI: I was kind of shocked, and I was kind of like, oh, is there actually something like this in the world?
WIGHT: Nuki wants to be a doctor someday. So the chance to earn 15 to 20 bucks an hour training medical students as a pretend patient was kind of a dream-come-true. Every six weeks or so, Nuki comes to Maine Medical Center in Portland, slips on a johnny, sits in an exam room and takes on a new persona.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR KNOCKING)
ALLIE TETREAULT: Hey, there, Emma?
WIGHT: Third-year medical student Allie Tetreault knows Nuki by her fictional patient name, Emma. A lot of teens avoid the doctor, so it's important for Tetreault to learn how to make them feel comfortable.
TETREAULT: What kind of things do you like to do outside of school?
NUKI: (As Emma) I play soccer, and so preseason is coming up soon.
WIGHT: Nuki preps weeks ahead of time for her patient roles. She memorizes a case history of family details, lifestyle habits and the tone she should present.
NUKI: I've had one case where I was concerned about being pregnant. And that was kind of the most, like, harsh one I guess.
WIGHT: As Emma, Nuki's playing just a shy, healthy teen.
TETREAULT: So how'd school finish up for you this year?
NUKI: (As Emma) It was good. Yeah, school's been good. Yeah.
WIGHT: It's an easy role, Nuki says. But she ups the shyness factor because it poses a classic challenge to the medical student - how to get a teen to open up.
NUKI: Each case kind of has what's on paper. But then you can come in and kind of add another level, depending on how complex it is already. But you can add kind of your own twist to it.
WIGHT: After asking Emma about her personal history, Allie Tetreault moves on to the physical exam and listens as Emma takes deep breaths.
(SOUNDBITE OF DEEP BREATHS)
WIGHT: Tetreault gives a clean bill of health, and the practice appointment is over. But the most important part of Gabrielle Nuki's job is now going to begin. The 16-year-old now has to evaluate this adult professional. She's smooth and tactile after lots of training on how to deliver feedback. Nuki tells Tetreault she did a good job of making her feel comfortable.
NUKI: I also liked how you mentioned confidentiality because my age group, that's importance to touch on. And I think that maybe you could've had a couple more times where you asked me if I had any questions. But other than that, I think you did a really great job.
WIGHT: It's communication skills versus acting skills that really qualifies someone to be a standardized patient, says Dr. Pat Patterson, the director of pediatric training at Maine Medical Center.
PAT PATTERSON: A lot of times, patients really want to please their physician. So it's not easy for a patient to say, that didn't feel right, or the way you asked that made me feel badly.
WIGHT: Gabrielle Nuki says working with medical students and being forthright about their performance has given her more confidence. In the future, she hopes to take on more complex roles, maybe someone with depression. But she knows no matter what kind of patient she portrays, this job will prepare her well for when she reverses roles and one day becomes a doctor. For NPR News, I'm Patty Wight.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Time for Crime In The City - our profiles of crime novelists, people who make murder their business. In our final installment this summer, we go to West Africa. Ghana is the setting for author Kwei Quartey's who-done-its. The Ghanaian-American author has written three books featuring Detective Inspector Darko Dawson. When Quartey and NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton met up, they focused on the second in the series, with Ghana's bustling capital as the backdrop.
KWEI QUARTEY: I'm Kwei Quartey, author of "Children Of The Street." And we are at Agbogbloshie, which is a notoriously known slum in Accra, Ghana's capital.
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: And it's in this teeming shantytown of Accra that the first murder victim in Kwei Quartey's second mystery novel, "Children Of The Street," is found - on a bank, bang in the middle of the putrid, stinking, dark waters of the Agbogbloshie canal.
QUARTEY: From a crime fiction writer's standpoint, I do have a leaning towards particularly sad or poignant areas for a place to die. Besides the awful fate that you have come to as you've been either butchered to death or shot or what have you, that you should die in a place that is so filthy, it's almost as though you've been further humiliated.
QUIST-ARCTON: Doggedly determined, Detective Inspector Darko Dawson takes charge of the investigation that turns out to be serial killings of street children. Dawson is a loving family man who also loves his poorly paid job. He passionately wants to solve murders, especially when they involve society's castoffs.
QUARTEY: One of the most famous and significant things that he said to his boss who had dismissed the murder of a prostitute, he said, well, you know, a bank executive or a prostitute - dead is dead, sir. And he sometimes runs up against opposition from his senior - senior staff who wonder why he cares so much about a murdered person who certainly was not important to society.
QUIST-ARCTON: For example, street boys.
QUARTEY: Right, street boys who were being murdered one after the other in "Children Of The Street."
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Reading) A day shy of his 17th birthday, Musa was a boy with the survival instincts over a grown man. Blood sprang from the stab wound in his back, but he did not die instantly. As his blood drained, Musa had a running vision, like a video of his short life.
QUIST-ARCTON: The book begins with this brief encounter with the character Musa, who hails from impoverished dry, dusty northern Ghana. He moves South to the lush, green capital city in search of work to send money home to his mother. But after pushing open-top carts around the streets ferrying heaving loads, Musa's is the first murder in "Children Of The Street." The prologue tells us.
MAN: (Reading) Penniless and lonely, Musa hadn't known a soul in Accra. He only wanted his life to get better. As Musa's eyelids fluttered closed, he must've wondered if this is what his father had meant. If you go to Accra, you will become nothing but a street child, and you will pay a terrible price.
QUIST-ARCTON: Kwei Quartey's murder mystery concentrates on the old Accra, on the coastal curve of the Atlantic Ocean. Quartey makes it a point to personally research his murder locations, during trips to Ghana from the U.S., where he's a practicing physician.
QUARTEY: That was why it was important for me to actually go through Agbogbloshie and see what it was like, you know, smells and all. And I don't make places up - at least not anymore because there's plenty of locations in Ghana that you don't have to ever make up.
QUIST-ARCTON: Born to an African-American mother and Ghanaian father, Quartey was raised in Accra before heading to medical school in the U.S. He says Accra is a high-energy, rules-meant-to-be-broken kind of place in some parts, that is both entertaining and exhausting.
QUARTEY: The sound, the smells and the sights - sometimes so much that you're brain gets tired. But it is a perfect location for murders of all kinds because in many ways - for example, at night time, the city becomes very quiet and deserted and certainly very dark. And in some ways, it's easy to get murdered in a crowd. And you might be ignored for a while. The police may not find you for a little while.
QUIST-ARCTON: And it's in some of these dark spots that crimes occur, like this commercial district, which was noisy and hectic during our daytime tour. It grows quiet once the traders disappeared. Deep into the night, always on their guard, street children lie down to sleep after a punishing day of work.
QUARTEY: This is an area in which during the night, you would hardly expect a beautiful, glossy Mercedes-Benz to sail in and have any business. And it's one of the reasons it caught Darko Dawson's eye along with his team of detectives.
QUIST-ARCTON: Now, don't give anything away, but give us a hint?
QUARTEY: Well, the Mercedes took the child to a very upscale area in Accra, and because the house belonged to one of the characters who was interviewed by Darko Dawson, it immediately threw suspicion on him.
QUIST-ARCTON: But DI Dawson's innate sixth sense sometimes lets down the tall, good-looking police officer. That's when he can't resist secretly puffing on a spliff. Marijuana is Dawson's Achilles' heel. He agonizes when he hauls in the wrong suspect and has to release the person. And it's then that his loving family steps in to calm Dawson down.
QUARTEY: Well, his wife, Christine, is a smart, attractive woman who is a teacher. And she provides a lot of insight for him although she is not a cop. She's a stabilizing force for him since he can sometimes go off the rails, especially when he finds himself wrong. And when he goes into depression over these, it's sometimes Christine who gets him out of it. She's a quiet backbone.
QUIST-ARCTON: In the end, Detective Inspector Darko Dawson and his sidekick, Philip Chikata, get their killer and go on to new challenges. Quartey tells NPR that he'll feature more about Ghanaian customs, values and language in the next crime novel with D.I. Dawson investigating a dead body and the murky world of illegal gold mining.
QUARTEY: With gold, it seems almost a crazy, craven rush for wealth from that famous, glinting, yellow metal. Yeah, it's a totally different world for him.
QUIST-ARCTON: Kwei Quartey's "Gold Of The Fathers" is due out next spring. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Accra. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.