Witchcraft-related murders are at the heart of Deadly Harvest, the pseudonymous Michael Stanley’s fourth Botswana whodunit.
How did the Detective Kubu series come about?
A glimmer of an idea came to us about 30 years ago when we watched a pack of hyenas in Botswana completely demolish a wildebeest, consuming everything but the horns and hooves. “What a wonderful way to get rid of a dead body!” we thought (probably after a glass or two of wine). With no body, the police would have no case. That became the starting premise of our first book. We needed a country where such things were possible. In South Africa, the wildlife areas are very well controlled and it would be hard to get away with dumping a murder victim in one of them. Also, we loved Botswana, having spent quite a bit of time there for various reasons. It is a country of diverse landscapes, peoples, and wonderful wilderness areas. Finally we liked the idea of setting our books in a more neutral environment that South Africa, i.e., in a country where we could explore issues affecting modern southern Africa but not necessarily always harking back to the legacy of apartheid.
Are there themes that all your books share?
The continuing context is the traditional culture of the Botswana people based on politeness and respect. Authority and elders are seldom publicly challenged. Detective Kubu comes from this background and honors it, but he also has a broader perspective which sometimes puts him at odds with his family and his superiors. A theme that runs through all our books is the emergence of a modern society from a more traditional one and the conflicts which that inevitably generates.
What is the current state of witch doctor-related murders?
Unfortunately, this is an on-going problem, not something we invented for the book. It’s almost a cliche that most murders are solved by tracking motive and examining the victims’ friends, family, and acquaintances. Generally victims selected for body parts for black magic do have some special quality—albinos are thought to have high potency, for example—but there is no relationship between them and their murderers. It’s the serial killer problem. How do you find the perpetrator if you can’t trace a connection to the victim? Also, because the belief in the power of these people is so prevalent—even among educated people—few witnesses or informants are willing to come forward. They are too frightened of the potential consequences. And finally the police themselves are scared of the witch doctors and uncomfortable about where the trail may lead. It is often the rich and powerful who are the users of these potions, and revealing them may be detrimental to a policeman’s future. If anything the situation is getting worse rather than better. One reads reports of attacks—fortunately not always successful—almost every week.
Did you learn something you didn’t expect when studying the issue?
Yes, we learned that there is a pseudo-logic behind the production of these potions. It links also with ancestor worship. The potions must be presented in such a way that the ancestors will recognize them and their purpose. For example, they should be stored in a container made of skin or a gourd, not something modern like plastic or glass. The effect of suggestion must not be underestimated. Where a malady has a relationship to mental attitude, these types of remedies often produce a significant improvement. Male sexual performance is an obvious example. It is then a small step to believe in their efficacy in other areas.