Ghanaian Mystery Writer Says 'It's Easy To Get Murdered In Accra'

Sep 1, 2014
Originally published on September 2, 2014 11:23 am

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.

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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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.