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The mystery of Accra's crime writer

Inspector Darko Dawson’s latest mystery finds himself embroiled in the oil industry. Ben Lerwill tracks down the author Dr Kwei Quartey in LA to solve how his detective fiction became a best seller stateside

John Oakey (illustration)

All writers have their specialities. Dr Kwei Quartey deals in mysteries, and perhaps the biggest one of all is how a medical practitioner finds the time to write best-selling crime fiction. The Ghana-born California resident, a full-time doctor, has just released the third in his series of Inspector Darko Dawson mystery novels. Titled Murder At Cape Three Points, it sees the detective delving into a controversial but topical area: something the blurb describes as the “greed and corruption of Ghana’s brand new oil industry”. 

If you’ve not yet come across Inspector Darko Dawson, here’s a brief introduction. He’s a CID detective in Accra. He has a weakness for marijuana, an anger management problem and a son with a congenital heart defect. He also has a mean eye for crime-solving. In short, he’s the kind of complex central character that every successful detective novel needs. So much so, in fact, that the first Darko Dawson novel, Wife of the Gods, made the Los Angeles Times bestseller list. The second and third in the series have both drawn positive reviews too. 

And despite the super-human time management involved in juggling crime-writing and medicine (he gets up very early, apparently), it appears there’s actually a natural symbiosis between the two disciplines. “Oh, sure,” Quartey says, speaking to Time Out Accra from his home in Pasadena. “The detection that you’re doing in medicine is very similar to the work a police detective would do. When you have a patient come in with a set of complaints, that’s basically your mystery staring you in the face. You have to start investigating, and asking questions. As a doctor, you look for clues just as a detective would.”     

The son of university lecturers, Quartey grew up in Ghana surrounded by books, devouring works by the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Enid Blyton. He lived in Ghana until the age of 18, when he moved with his mother to the US. Today, he writes his novels in the States but sets them in Accra, researching the material on annual month-long visits to the country of his birth.  

“On my first research trip, I hadn’t been in Ghana for some 15 years or so,” he explains. “It’s a much more exciting place to write about than, say, Pasadena or Los Angeles, because of the rapid change going on right now in Accra, both economically and socially. It’s been great for me to follow the change through each novel. You couldn’t do that in LA – there’s not so much change.” 

And why did he choose to focus his new Darko Dawson mystery on a murder in the oil industry? “Oh, oil has crime written all over it,” he says. “There’s greed, there’s jealousy, all of that good stuff. But on my trips it’s the research itself that’s the most enjoyable – going to different places, discovering new things I hadn’t discovered before. Things I didn’t know about when I was living there as a kid. When I come to Ghana, I’ve usually chosen the subject so I know what things I’m specifically looking for. Little details like street names, injecting a bit more flavour into some of the scenes.” 

Whenever he’s back in town, there are certain things he makes a point of enjoying. “For me, there are definitely some must-eat meals. I’m a huge fan of fufu – I always have to have some of that. And I like hanging out at Accra Mall. But coming to Ghana is always a chance to see friends and relatives too.” 

He admits that there are aspects of his personality in Darko’s character, but stops short of calling him an alter ego. If he possessed the same levels of mental insight as his fictional creation, however, he might have been able to figure out which country to cheer for when Ghana met the USA in the World Cup. “Yeah”, he recalls, still sitting on the metaphorical fence. “Oh, that was a horrible day for me...”  

www.kweiquartey.com

His new book Gold of our Fathers, 2016, is out now.  

 

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Excerpt – opening paragraphs of Murder at Three Points

“Cape Three Points, the southernmost tip of Ghana, is beautiful and wild. Verdant forest covers the three finger-like peninsulas that jut into the Atlantic Ocean. Dizzying cliffs overlook the cyan waters. As waves strike the slate grey rocks and burst into gossamer spray, the roar of the sea crescendos like the sibilant clash of cymbals. 

At dusk, the brightness of the sky melts and softens. The dying sun lays a wide band of gold across the sea. A full moon rises and imparts a silver gloss to the dark ocean, silhouetting fishing canoes gliding along silently like ghosts. 

The forests and mangrove swamps of the coast are flora and fauna sanctuaries. In the Gulf of Guinea too, wildlife flourishes, but not without threat. Frolicking bottlenose dolphins and humpback whales would do well to avoid an alien creature in their midst. Afloat on powerful, squat limbs, its gangly crane booms resemble tentacles. From the derrick, its drill descends like a proboscis and penetrates the seabed to extract as much oil as possible. The creature is the Thor Sterke.”

 

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