There is a strong sub-faction of science fiction and fantasy readers these days who, without looking too deeply, take a book or story and champion it on premise alone. If it is said to highlight women’s issues or racism, it is automatically praised as ‘great’ regardless of the actual quality of the novel—the trigger enough to recommend. Genre novels set in Africa can also be on this list. Somehow mention the struggle of Somalese or Nigerians in a story and it’s almost sure to garner the support of this sub-faction, regardless the quality of the backing narrative. As a whole, this does science fiction and fantasy no favors. Good, unique novels which do not go out of their way to billboard ‘Africa’ yet intelligently examine issues inherent to the continent get lost in the shuffle, while more generic novels which put a few cheap, neon lights around the setting or culture tend to get more press. Tade Thompson’s 2015 Making Wolf utilizes contemporary Africa as its setting, the question is, is the surrounding narrative substantial?
Making Wolf opens with Weston Kogi thinking he’s making a brief return trip to his home country of Alcacia, Africa for a beloved aunt’s funeral. The post-ceremony commemoration getting out of hand, Kogi quickly finds that his plans for return are not to be. Press-ganged into detective work that his job as mall security in London would not seem to qualify him for, the local rebel group LFA tasks him with identifying the killer of a recently assassinated politician—as long as the killer is not a member of LFA. And it’s not long into the ensuing investigation that the opposing rebel faction, the CPA, tasks Kogi with the same: identify the killer as long as it isn’t one of us. As men from the government emerge from the shadows as well, Kogi’s chances of identifying the assassin and making it back to London in one piece grow grimmer by the day.
As naked as it is, Making Wolf is simply a hardboiled detective story set in a contemporary African setting. How the story evolves, the characters, and the milieu of corruption are all extremely recognizable, even as the idiosyncracies of speech, circumstance, and cultural backdrop offer something different from a Dashiel Hammet or Raymond Chandler novel. The former the engine, the latter the ornamentation, Thompson chooses to focus the novel’s energy on plot more so than politics, making for a fast-paced, action-packed, if not predictable storyline. Sex and violence the eye candy keeping the pages turning, sweat and blood flow freely, yet feel only partially excused by the real-world framework of war and strife in Somalia, Nigeria, Sudan, and other such African countries. In short, the resolution to the murder mystery is wholly prioritized for dramatic impact, that is, rather than balancing said impact with cultural and/or social relevancy.
That being said, the fictional, culturual backdrop of Alcacia Thompson creates does act as something of an amalgam of Africa’s ongoing political/social issues. From the variety and dynamism of rebel factions to the high levels of corruption on the street and in government, globalizing daily life (mobile phones, Coca-cola, etc.) to the mainline of quotidian poverty, the urbanizing Africa seen in the news is represented by Thompson on the pages, and in the very least, through some detailed descriptions, comes to life in the reader’s mind. Only that it plays second fiddle to the larger concerns of plot machinations prevent it from being an element with greater depth.
A debut novel, there are some issues with Making Wolf. Along with Hollywood-sized plot holes that only grow larger as the story progresses, the writing itself is choppy and inconsistent. At times the exposition can be on point and motivating, while in others distracting and unreliable. In one scene, for example, Kogi speaks quite soberly then proceeds to black out, nothing in the dialogue or exposition to hint or foreshadow it.
In the end, Making Wolf is a classic hardboiled detective story neatly embedded in an alternate-Africa setting that entertains with sex and violence, and to a minor degree highlights a few of the broader social and political issues of real-world Africa. (I normally do not mention book covers, but in the case of Making Wolf, I will. It’s superb—better than the story itself perhaps for its representation of the story’s usage of violence in Africa.) Easily readable, the novel does not possess much of substance beyond the surface skimming of known African issues, and is not the tightest story ever delivered. By contrast, Graham Greene’s The Quiet American is a good example of a story that uses a region’s strife in an entertaining manner, yet pins its evolution and climax on a political point. All the pieces ready and available, Thompson have easily done the same. Instead, yet he chose to go the hermetic route, meaning anyone who champions this book as having humanitarian interest in Africa should take a second look at the actual novel.