Modernity and Tradition Clash in Ghanaian Noir

An interview with Kwei Quartey, author of "The Missing American."

Kwei Quartey’s The Missing American is the debut of a new murder mystery series featuring a Ghanaian female private investigator. When Emma Djan is kicked out of the Ghana Police force after a horrifying MeToo moment, she joins a private investigator’s agency. What appears at first to be an ordinary “missing persons” case becomes much more serious and dangerous, leading Emma into a dark world of email scams and fetish priests.

I talked to Kwei Quartey about the story’s origins and why Ghana is rich soil for crime fiction.

Lori Rader-Day

Where did this book start for you—an image, a character…?

Kwei Quartey

In fact, it began in the last novel in my Inspector Darko Dawson series, Death By His Grace. In that story, Darko is paired with a female rookie detective called Mabel Safo. My original idea was to have her work cases with Darko—a kind of partial independence. But Juliet Grames, my prescient editor at Soho Press, encouraged me to create a distinct female detective with her own story. Thus, Emma and The Missing American were born as the start of something new. I did lose some time because I had to go back and recreate from scratch, but ultimately it was for the good.

Lori Rader-Day

Your book is set in Ghana and DC, across the lives of a broad spectrum of characters. Why did you want to write about such a large cast of characters across two continents?

Kwei Quartey

I wanted to challenge myself to do something different from my prior novels, so I created a broad geographic and character spread. I’ve always enjoyed stories or movies that have disparate characters who you can’t possibly imagine are connected. You have an “aha” moment when you find out how they relate to each other. The other reason is to acknowledge how faraway places are not so far away from us anymore because of the Internet and the devices that bring us closer with just a few clicks.

Lori Rader-Day

Why is Ghana a good setting for crime fiction?

Kwei Quartey

In Ghana, tradition contrasts strongly with modernity, yet the two entities coexist quite seamlessly. They are not discrete. Although the country is developing at breathtaking speed—and we can follow these changes from one novel to the next—deeply-felt spiritual beliefs change little, and they have prominence in most, if not all, my books. And then again, the beliefs may differ from one region to the next and are hardly uniform. This all provides a rich, layered, and complex environment in which to set crime, and I try to take full advantage of it. African crime fiction, a subdivision of “Sunshine Noir,” offers an unusual dimension in which spiritual beliefs can play a part in murder. And quite unlike “Nordic Noir,” Ghana—like other sub-Saharan countries—is full of heat, brightness, and color. It’s ebullient and explosive, rather than gray and reserved. Another dynamic is the dismayingly high prevalence of police corruption in Ghana. Although I wish it wasn’t as bad as it is, it is admittedly excellent fodder for my books.

Lori Rader-Day

What kind of research did you need to do to write The Missing American?

Kwei Quartey

Quite a lot—primarily surrounding sakawa, the practice of Internet scamming with the backing of spiritual powers bestowed by an indigenous (“fetish”) priest. Fittingly, it was a private detective in Ghana with strong connections to the spiritual community who took me to meet these fetish priests and the fraudsters called “sakawaboys.” All settings and scenes in the novel represent places I have visited or experienced personally. Sometimes it was a little creepy for me, but always fascinating. I was constantly figuring out how to incorporate this or that into the novel. Again, a couple of characters are modeled after real personalities in Ghana.

Lori Rader-Day

Emma Djan is an interesting character to become a private eye—prim, apologetic, and perhaps innocent when we first meet her. Why did you want to write a woman investigator for this series?

Kwei Quartey

I believe everything good happens when the time is right. There was no singular moment of decision to write a woman investigator. It came to me as I began I writing Death By His Grace. This was just before the MeToo movement blossomed. I call 2018/19 “The Year of The Woman,” and as I moved into writing The Missing American, I saw how it dovetailed with my story. The time was right, but not at all contrived. I felt good about Emma Djan, and I’m more drawn to her than I am [my previous books’ protagonist] Darko. I find it appealing how she starts out so diffidently but gradually emerges as an effective (some have said “formidable”) investigator. Something I noticed in retrospect was that I was often tense when writing Darko (perhaps the male tendency to compete with other males?) but I’m completely relaxed around Emma. Whereas I have reservations about Darko as a person, I have only admiration for Emma. She may appear soft, but she’s a tough, principled cookie.

Lori Rader-Day

What were your literary inspirations for this book?

Kwei Quartey

I’m never quite sure how to answer that question, but my inspirations in general are a subconscious alloy of all the crime fiction I’ve read over the years since childhood, so there probably isn’t a discrete, identifiable set of books that went into inspiring The Missing American. But let us say that the friendly ghost of Sherlock Holmes is always with me when I’m writing. For twists and turns, I’ve admired author Colin Dexter. For writing style, I like Henning Mankell. For dynamic character, I love Ann Cleeves’s Vera Stanhope, even though Vera is a lot different from Emma. 

Lori Rader-Day

What project is next for you?

Kwei Quartey

The second in the Emma Djan series is done, and some of 2020 will be spent editing that for 2021 release. In the time being, I’ve started on the final Darko Dawson episode in that series, after which Emma will be around for quite a while.

The Missing American
By Kwei Quartey
Soho Press
Published January 14, 2020

Lori Rader-Day is the Edgar® Award-nominated author of Under a Dark Sky, The Day I Died, Little Pretty Things, and The Black Hour. She lives in Chicago, where she co-chairs the mystery readers' conference Murder and Mayhem in Chicago. Her next novel, The Lucky One, is out from Harper Collins in February.

1 comment on “Modernity and Tradition Clash in Ghanaian Noir

  1. Susan Levi

    Great interview! This book sounds like something I want to read!


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