Location is key when it comes to crime novels.
Scan through the genre and you will often find the best writers are closely associated with the cities in which their stories are based.
In Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels, Edinburgh is an infinitely cold but soulful city; Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct tales paint New York in jazzy seductive tones; Parker Bilal’s Inspector Makana series portrays a unforgiving yet endearing Cairo; while Dubai-based Tom Callaghan is steadily building a solid reputation with a pair of hardboiled detective novels set in the grimy streets of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
With Nigerian author Leye Adenle, a major new city entered the fray as a captivating backdrop. In last year's critically acclaimed debut novel, Easy Motion Tourist, Lagos is an active participant in the pacy thriller: steamy and cacophonous, its myriad seedy alleyways are an apt metaphor for the corruption and street smarts that feed the city.
Navigating it all is Guy Collins, a British journalist covering Nigeria’s federal elections. After discovering a mutilated female corpse on a side street, he teams up with sassy hustler Amaka as they enter a world where witchcraft and street justice coincide.
“A lot of people misunderstand Lagos,” says Adenle, before his appearance today at Sharjah International Book Fair. “They only hear about what is said in the news and they mistake what is happening in Nigeria in general for Lagos. And the people who live in Lagos often have this bizarre relationship with the city itself. They talk about it like it is a member of the family. Like it is an uncle or someone who you would regularly share a meal with.”
Adenle credits the city’s sharp distinctions for providing him with enough colour and depth to move from flash fiction and short stories to a fully fleshed novel.
“Whoever knows Lagos knows the city constantly offers a range of extremes,” he says. “There is extreme wealth and poverty. There is extreme religion with churches and mosques at nearly every corner; then there are extreme behaviours that are not permissible in any religion. You got sanctimonious preachers and leaders who wear religion on their sleeves, and at the same time, the city is full of corrupt politicians. In that melting pot of extremes there is a lot of friction. Crime writing is about those opposites rubbing against each other.”
Another aspect of the crime novel is that some of the cases are inspired by real-life events, such is the case with Mark Billingham's latest novel Love Like Blood.
In the latest case featuring Detective Inspector Tom Thorne, the British bestselling author takes us into London where a Bangladeshi couple are murdered in what appears to be an honour killing.
Appearing tomorrow at the book fair to discuss his latest work, Billingham says the novel was loosely inspired by the haunting 2012 documentary, Banaz: A Love Story, based on the 2006 case of Banaz Mahmod, an Iraqi Kurd who was murdered by her father and uncle in retaliation for marrying someone of her own choosing. "I remember following the case in 2006 but this documentary really brought home all the horror of it. I was fired up and I told myself that I really have to write something about this," he says.
“Crime writers like to say that our works reflect the society that we live in more than other genres, but we can only say that for so long while we just write about serial killers. Now thankfully, there are not too many serial killers running about, and this story that I wrote is based on something that is really happening.”
To accommodate that reality, Billingham describes how he read “almost anything to do” with honour killings in addition to speaking with UK police officers and social workers who deal with the issue.
In addition to attempting to write a page-turner based on a traumatic subject, Billingham states that another big challenge was to avoid the story unfairly tarnishing London’s South Asian communities.
“That was very important to me as these things can be used as weapons against people and I absolutely wanted to avoid that,” he says. “I make it clear at the author’s note at the end of the book that in no sense am I commenting on these communities and religions, and that I am just writing about particular individuals and the act they committed.”
Billingham says his latest foray into current events is part of the beauty of crime novels. An investigator as a central character, he says, provides the writer with ample room to explore all facets of society.
“No doors are shut for a detective,” Billingham says.
“As a writer you can really go anywhere when there is an investigation, and through that you can provide a snapshot on what is going in the city.”
That was also the motivation behind Adenle’s decision to cast his central character as a British journalist working in Lagos. “I wanted to tell the story of the city from an objective point of view,” he says.
“If the character was someone from Lagos they would not have been astonished by some of things that happened in the city. A Nigerian journalist, for example, probably wouldn’t rush out to the scene of a brutal murder hoping for a story as this can be part of everyday life. So Guy, a British journalist and an outsider, is interesting as he has a romantic idea of the city and the story has him slowly coming to terms with the reality of the place.”
While Billingham and Adenle will lead different sessions across the two days, both writers – who have never met – are confident of seeking each other out among the hustle and bustle of the book fair.
After all, this is what crime novelists do, states Billingham. “We have friendly ‘gang’ mentality. Whenever we go to festivals we try to find each because no matter what part of the world we come from we share a very important thing in common, and because of that we support each other.”
Adenle describes an example of such camaraderie when he shared a panel discussion with South African crime writer Deon Meyer, at a French literary festival last year. He recalls how Meyer kept telling his fans that Adenle was related to him and, as a result, the 300 copies of his book all sold out.
“For us writers of crime fiction, any bitterness and darkness within us and anyone we wanted to murder, we put it in our books. So at the end of the day all that we have left is goodness,” Adenle says. “That’s why crime writers are great friends to have.”
Leye Adenle takes part in The Joys of Writing, at the Book Forum today at 6pm. Mark Billingham appears in How to Build a Gripping Storyline, tomorrow at the Book Forum at 8.30pm. Both talks take place at Sharjah International Book Fair, the Expo Centre Sharjah. See www.sibf.com