Ishmael & David Odihambo

Created by Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ

“If you want the truth you must go to its source. The truth is in the past. Come to Nairobi.”
— the anonymous tip that sets things off in Nairobi Heat

When we first meet ISHMAEL in Mũkoma wa Ngũgĩ‘s 2011 bloody but eye-opening novel, Nairobi Heat, he’s a police detective from Madison, Wisconsin, who’s been whisked all the way off to Kenya, as part of his investigation into a local murder. The prime suspect is Joshua Hakizimana, a black professor at a Wisconsin university, and the victim is a young local girl. A young local white girl. Whose body was found on his doorstep.

Which prompts Ishmael to muse:

“If I was to give advice to black criminals, I would tell them this: do not commit crimes against white people because the state will not rest until you are caught… A beautiful blonde girl is dead and a week later I’m chasing ghosts in Africa.”

Ismael has never been to Africa before, and he’s already undergoing severe culture shock by the time he’s landed at the Nairobi airport–the locals refer to him as the equivalent of “whitey.” He’s greeted almost immediately by boisterous, good-natured, pot-smoking local police detective DAVID “O” ODIHAMBO, who assures him that both his “friends and enemies” call him “O.” But Ishmael can only ponder O’s skin colour. “I mean I’m black, but this brother was so black he was blue,” he muses.

But soon enough,  the two cops are working together, digging into Hakizimana’s past, and unearthing facts that seem to suggest that the professor, an activist once celebrated for his actions during the 1994  Rwandan genocide, may have a few less than heroic skeletons in his closet. Neither of them are prepared, however, for the rain of violence that comes raining down on them. Dashiell Hammett‘s Red Harvest, another celebrated but violent novel, had a chapter subtitled “The Seventeenth Murder.” I gave up counting the dropped bodies in Nairobi Heat after twenty-seven.

But for Ishmael and O, it’s the start of a beautiful friendship. By the start of its follow-up, the two have formed their own detective agency, Black Star, from which the book, Black Star Nairobi, draws its title.

But if the carnage in the first book bothered you, I’m sorry to report that the sequel may be even bloodier, with the newly minted P.I.s forced to deal with everything from terrorists and hotel bombings to machete attacks, as the country teeters on the edge.

Still, the books are breathtaking; rock ’em sock ’em thrillers that pull few, if any punches, as well as genuine eye-openers for readers unfamiliar with African culture and history, and could herald the arrival of an important new and perhaps necessary voice in P.I. fiction. Let’s keep an eye on this guy…


Poet and novelist MUKOMA WA NGUGI was born in 1971 in Evanston, Illinois, the son of the world-renowned African writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and grew up in Kenya before returning to the United States for his undergraduate and graduate education.  His fiction has been shortlisted for the 2009 Caine Prize and the 2010 Penguin Prize for African Writing. His columns have appeared in The Guardian, International Herald Tribune, and The Los Angeles Times, and he has been a guest on Democracy Now, Al Jazeera, and the BBC World Service. His essays and poetry have been included in a number of anthologies as well as in his own poetry collection, Hurling Words at Consciousness. He is currently a professor of English at Cornell University.


  • “Ngugi’s ability to weave a complex narrative, which connects crime and racial tensions in the US to an in-depth knowledge of Kenya and its nuances, to Rwanda and its genocide past within this African crime thriller, is nothing but the work of a genius craftsman and wordsmith.”
    — New African Magazine on Nairobi Heat
  • “Nairobi Heat’s biggest triumph is the way it forces us to re-examine accepted narratives and received truths.”
    — The Mail & Guardian
  • ”An engaging insider’s view of the cultural divide between Americans and Africans.”
    — Publishers Weekly
  • “The author’s spare noir style is perfectly suited to a story set in the maze of national, cultural, tribal, class, and sexual divisions that make up contemporary Kenya. Ishmael is the Everyman lost in that maze, ever stumbling towards the truth, only to be turned back again and again by the people he longs to save… Shocking, heartbreaking, yet ending on a glimmer of hope, the echoes of Nairobi Heat remain long after the last page is turned.”
    — Betty Webb (September 2011, Mystery Scene)



Respectfully compiled by Kevin Burton Smith.


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