Opening Michael Stanley’s new book is like opening a door and greeting a wonderful friend who visits you once a year or so. The friend in this case is Assistant Superintendent David “Kubu” Bengu, a Botswana police detective, a man of massive size, appetite and personality. Kubu (the nickname means “hippopotamus” in the Setswana language) is one of those people possessed of a quiet but immense dignity, who you would embrace almost immediately in the real world. The five loves of Kubu’s life, which he notes in the opening pages of the book, are his infant daughter, Tumi; his wife, Joy; his fox terrier, Ilia; food and wine; and being a policeman. It is the last of those that lets him down most often. And as DEATH OF THE MANTIS opens, it has let him down once again.
"DEATH OF THE MANTIS is a wonderful piece of work, a novel that is quietly perfect in every way."
This is the third book featuring Kubu, following A CARRION DEATH and THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU. The “Michael Stanley” claiming authorship is actually a wonderfully seamless collaborative effort between Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, both of whom were born in Johannesburg and know the lay of the veld, as it were. The first few pages consists of a thoughtful list of the characters to be found within, for those of us who might find the names of some to be a bit too exotic to keep track of. And if you happened to miss the first two books, that is no problem; you can jump right into the new one without missing a beat. Stanley provides you with what little you need to know of the genial Kubu’s background to bring you up to speed. And up to speed you will want to be, because DEATH OF THE MANTIS is a wonderful piece of work, a novel that is quietly perfect in every way.
At the start of the book, Kubu is contacted by an old school friend --- the equivalent of elementary school, that is --- named Khumanego. The friendship originally emerged from their shared status as “odd duck” classmates due to their respective sizes: Khumanego, a Bushman, was small, compared to the other boys, while Kubu was big even during his earliest days. Khumanego is now an advocate for the Bushmen, who are subject to prejudice by other tribes and being moved from their traditional lands to government settlements.
Khumanego is reaching out to Kubu after many years because a trio of Bushmen has been accused of the murder of a game ranger, and the investigation into the matter seems designed to reach a foregone conclusion as to their guilt. Kubu reluctantly agrees to intervene in order to provide the proceedings with a fresh perspective. At first, he is vehemently directed by his boss to stay out of the matter. Subsequent circumstances result in his being sent to assist in the investigation. Similar murders occur, and it appears that the Bushmen are indeed behind the mayhem.
Kubu’s thirst for justice, however, is as great as his appetite for food and drink. His persistence at uncovering the truth at the expense of what appears to be obvious is unsettling at times to those around him --- particularly his superiors --- but he is compelled to do so, even when, as here, the evidence leads him to places where he wishes it had not. In the end, Kubu’s thoughts in the early stages of the book come back to haunt him: police work is all too often concerned less with solving crimes and more with picking up the pieces afterward.
DEATH OF THE MANTIS is one of those rare books that transcends its rich genre. While there is a mystery at its core, it is also a study of the human condition, of the best and worst of people who do what they do for the best and worst of reasons. And Kubu is one of the best friends you will make between the pages of a book.