What’s black and white and dead all over? There may be several unfortunate answers to that question, or, one may simply be referring to the plot lines of Ngugi’s novel. Dead white girl, black cop, blacker suspect and dead folk . . . all over.
In the snow-white town of Madison, Wis., African-American detective Ishmael Fofona is investigating the death of a young white woman whose body has been found on the doorstep of Joshua Hakizimana’s home. Though Joshua is a well-respected professor and “hero” who is said to have saved thousands during the Rwandan genocide, his identity—in Wisconsin, at least—continues to be defined by colour, not deeds. As racial tensions rise, Ishmael and his (also black) police chief are under huge pressure to find a quick resolution, and Ishmael has no choice but to take the advice of an anonymous caller: “The truth is in the past. Come to Nairobi.”
Kenya serves as a real flip side, where pursuer is pursued, black man becomes white man (mzungu, or foreigner) and a cold Bud is replaced by a Tusker. Ishmael tries to glean what he can about Joshua, making his way through a maze of people and places, coming out the other end sticky from both the heat and questionable morals he’s encountered. While Ishmael discovers that Joshua may not be the man he claims to be, he is equally shocked to find a flip side to his own self.
As with any compelling mystery, nothing is what it appears to be, and just as the reader begins to suspect that Ngugi’s novel has embarked upon a disappointing denouement, both literarily and ethically, he smacks his last pages in our face to thrilling effect.