Kwei Quartey's mystery thriller, CHILDREN OF THE STREET, plunged me straight in Accra, the capital of Ghana. The book was full of vivid details: child porters carrying deliveries on their heads, a river bank littered with plastic bottles and "flying toilets" (bagged human excrement), cows grazing on the other side of the river, a variety of languages (there's a short glossary in the back of the book), stereotypes about people from Northern Ghana, named neighborhoods, everything from Agobogbloshie, also called Sodom and Gomorrah, to Jamestown, streets, cafes, and even radio stations. Sometimes Quartey's language was a little too explanatory, but it disappeared as the story progressed, and I honestly didn't mind an author holding my hand as he brought this foreign world to life and immersed me in it. And clearly Quartey knows his stuff. Born in Ghana, he currently lives in the US, but in his acknowledgements thanks numerous Ghanian people and institutions, including the GPS (Ghana Police Service).
With the exception of the setting, the story, while clever, is fairly typical thriller fare. Street children are being murdered in gruesome ways, one by one, and Detective Inspector Darko Dawson finds himself tracking down an elusive serial killer. While the back of my book tells me Quartey's first book, WIFE OF THE GODS, garnered a star from Booklist and made him a bestselling author, I had never heard of him until recently, and I was a suspicious reader. As someone who's worked with street children before, sensationalistic or inaccurate portrayals of poverty make my blood boil. But I didn't want to read a moral lesson about our treatment of the poor, either. Thankfully, I was in totally self-assured hands. In addition to a riveting plot that had me reading for several hours straight, Inspector Dawson is a well-rounded character. He's fully devoted to his wife, and desperate with worry for his 7-year-old son, who needs an unaffordable life-saving heart surgery as soon as possible. Dawson cares for children, and blanches at their poverty, but at the same time struggles with his temper, and fights his addiction to wee (marijuana), which he buys from a dealer immersed in Accra's street culture.
On first finishing the book, I initially thought some threads were left hanging with suspicious characters who weren't murderers, but whose actions might very well have been illegal or at least morally questionable. But on further thought, that's one of the themes of the book. While many characters thought of the street children as filthy or reprehensible, they were also interacting with and benefiting from that culture. What a cutting (but subtle!) indictment of poverty that is!
And as dark as the story was (and it was, including a graphic rape scene that left me quite uncomfortable), I loved the faint beam of hope at the end. I think I can share some of Quartey's great dialogue without giving away the killer!
"Don't you fear someone will see you take a child?"
"And so what?" X laughed hard. "Please, Inspector Dawson, let me tell you something you should know by now. Accra is a perfect place for murder. It is so dark and so quiet at night. Street people are sleeping everywhere. Who knows they are there, and who cares about them? Who will report anything? Everyone fears you, the police. They say if you go to report something to the police, you are the one who they will arrest. I could kill of these rubbish children around the corner from where the other ones sleep and I coud walk away without worrying. No one will care."
Dawson shook his head. He didn't want that to be true.
"When I throw such a person into the lagoon...," X continued, "I can do it without any concern whatsoever. I go back to my bed and sleep without any problem. You think a policeman is going to come and get me? Ha."
Dawson leaned across the table and brought his face so close to X's that X drew back.
"But X, my fool," he whispered, "that is exactly what I did. I came in and fished you out."