When the body of a Bushman is discovered near the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, the death is written off as an accident. But all is not as it seems. An autopsy reveals that, although he’s clearly very old, his internal organs are puzzlingly young. What’s more, an old bullet is lodged in one of his muscles … but where is the entry wound? When the body is stolen from the morgue and a local witch doctor is reported missing, Detective ‘Kubu’ Bengu gets involved. But did the witch doctor take the body to use as part of a ritual? Or was it the American anthropologist who’d befriended the old Bushman?
As Kubu and his brilliant young colleague, Detective Samantha Khama, follow the twisting trail through a confusion of rhino-horn smugglers, foreign gangsters and drugs manufacturers, the wider and more dangerous the case seems to grow. A fresh, new slice of ‘Sunshine Noir’, Dying to Live is a classic tale of greed, corruption and ruthless thuggery, set in one of the world’s most beautiful landscapes, and featuring one of crime fiction’s most endearing and humane heroes.
In this blog, we’d like to talk about backstories. We do so for a couple of reasons: first, backstories are very important to our stories; and second, they are often neglected in favour of a focus on character, setting, or something similar. Some crime stories don’t have or even need a clear backstory.
For us, the backstory is important because it sets our mysteries apart from a number of excellent South African writers, such as Deon Meyer, Mike Nicol, and Jassy Mackenzie to name but a few. All of them set their books in post-apartheid South Africa. The aftermath of apartheid is so strong that it is impossible to avoid if you set a book in that country.
However, by setting our mysteries in neighbouring Botswana, we can avoid the fallout from apartheid and can use other important issues present in southern Africa as a backstory.
You may ask why even have a backstory. Why not just tell the story of your mystery?
For us, the backstory is the foundation on which the story is built. And like most foundations, it shouldn’t stick out or be prominent. It would be a huge mistake to let the backstory become the story, or for the book to try to teach about the backstory. It should just be there, lying in the background.
One of the great pleasures of having backstories that are important contemporary issues is that we get to do a lot of research, reading widely, often travelling to particular locations, and sometimes talking to people with knowledge of the topic.
During our research for DEATH OF THE MANTIS, we learned that the Bushmen of the Kalahari are remarkable botanists, using their knowledge of plants to survive. They know which plants to eat, which to use for healing, and which to use for making poisons for hunting.
One such plant, has been used for centuries by Bushmen when they run after an antelope they have shot with a poisoned error. They use this plant, hoodia, as both an appetite suppressant and a provider of energy.
So, it is not surprising that South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) spotted the possible value of such a compound in the western world, where people eat too much and are trying to cut down their calorie intake. In 1972, they analyzed the plant for an active ingredient and came up with one they named P57. They then engaged in a joint venture with a British pharmaceutical company that managed to isolate the ingredient. However, the company claimed it was difficult to synthesize and subsequently released the rights to the material. Unilever snapped them up and reportedly spent ten million pounds on trying to develop a weight-loss drug from it.
Meanwhile, various groups had mounted a campaign to ensure that the Bushmen received compensation for their indigenous knowledge that had led directly to what could be a bonanza. Amid accusations of what was called biopiracy, the CSIR was forced to respond and set up a royalty arrangement for the Bushmen.
The story didn’t have a happy ending. Unilever cancelled the project. Trials hadn’t shown significant weight loss, and had indicated a variety of side effects. The Bushmen got nothing.
We knew about this from our research and realized what a powerful backstory it would make for one of our mysteries. And it is this backstory that underpins our recently released DYING TO LIVE.
We took the Hoodia idea and asked what if a Bushman knew of a plant that would extend life for fifty or a hundred years? What would be the consequences? What would people do to get hold of the plant?
You can see how this could become the basis of a murder mystery.
So that is a brief explanation why backstories play such a strong role in our books. They give a contemporary context for our stories and provide a foundation on which to build our stories.
Michael and Stanley aka Michael Stanley
Before giving you some insight into the backstory of DYING TO LIVE, we’d like to tell you about our previous backstories. In A CARRION DEATH, the backstory is the issue of blood diamonds, which are diamonds that are illegally sold often to finance wars. Botswana has the two richest diamond mines in the world, Jwaneng and Orapa, and there are plenty of other places to find diamonds. We thought we had come up with a unique twist on blood diamonds, but discovered that some people in the small country of Lesotho thought of it also. They were sent to jail.
Our second book, THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUK TINUBU, has as its backstory the aftermath of the nasty Rhodesian civil war. One often reads abut the end of such wars, bt, of course, although hostilities may have ceased, the ramifications continue for a long time. We thought it would be interesting to explore what happens when two men on opposite sides of the civil war find themselves in the same guust camp.
The saddest of our backstories occurs in DEATH OF THE MANTIS, which is about the Bushmen people, the oppression they have had to suffer, and their dreams and difficulties of maintaining their culture.
DEADLY HARVEST also has a tragic backstory, namely the use of human body parts for magic potions. This story is based on a true story that happened in Botswana in the 1990s.
A DEATH IN THE FAMILY sets a mystery on a backdrop of the increasing presence in Africa of the Chinese. They are everywhere, not always welcomed, and sometimes ruthlessly exploiting the local people and economies.
And so to DYING TO LIVE.
Dying To Live can be purchased from Amazon
Michael Stanley is the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip.
Both are retired professors who have worked in academia and business. Sears is a mathematician, specializing in geological remote sensing. Trollip is an educational psychologist, specializing in the application of computers to teaching and learning, and a pilot. They were both born in South Africa.
They have been on a number of flying safaris to Botswana and Zimbabwe, where it was always exciting to buzz a dirt airstrip to shoo the elephants off. They have had many adventures on these trips including tracking lions at night, fighting bush fires on the Savuti plains in northern Botswana, being charged by an elephant, and having their plane’s door pop open over the Kalahari, scattering navigation maps over the desert.. These trips have fed their love both for the bush, and for Botswana.
It was on one of these trips that the idea surfaced for a novel set in Botswana.
Keep up with the adventures of Detective Kubu on the author’s Webpage
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