Children of the Street, Kwei Quartey, Random House, $15.00.
I was knocked out by Quartey’s debut, Wife of the Gods, and I’m happy to report that this second novel is just as excellent. Quartey’s series character, Darko Dawson, is really a classic who seems as though he’s been solving mysteries “between the covers” for decades, not just two novels. He’s such a completely realized and compelling character that he’s a wonderful lynchpin for the books, though there is more to them even than Darko himself. Darko works for the CID in Ghana in the capitol city of Accra, where he lives with his wife and his son Hosiah, who suffers from a heart defect. There is surgery to cure it, but the Dawsons cannot afford it. Darko’s worry for his son is an underlying thread of anxiety that Quartey skillfully pulls through the novel.
The core of the novel concerns the street children of Accra - there are (according to Quartey, and I have no reason to doubt him) - 60,000 children living on the streets of Accra. When they start turning up dead, the cases, by the second or third body appear to be linked, though Darko’s boss allows his nephew, who works under Dawson, to head on a wild goose chase as far as the possible culprit is concerned. It’s a good sidebar as it’s a way for the book to highlight the workings of the Ghanian police force, as well as one of Darko’s weaknesses. The story of the street children is heartbreaking, and Quartey spares us no horrible detail as we learn about 13 year old girls forced to work as prostitutes, young boys who stake out a piece of sidewalk to sleep on while taking turns keeping watch, and the difficulty that all of the children have finding any kind of work or something to eat. Though it’s lightly touched on, much of the western world’s electronic garbage turns up in Africa, and one of the things the kids do for money is strip computer wires for the copper inside. Of course burning the outer part of the wire is toxic, and there’s a cloud of black smoke hanging over the garbage dump where they scrounge for electronics.
The plight of the boys only makes the parade of teen-aged corpses more heartbreaking. I admire any writer who can take a tired trope like the serial killer novel and make it absolutely fresh, which is the case here. Quartey is also a pure mystery writer with an obvious love for the genre - he makes use of red herrings, clues and tricky characters that succeed in fooling the reader. I was very surprised by the killer’s identity, even though there was a clue in the narrative. So this is a serial killer book, yes, but it’s not a thriller, it’s a mystery. Darko’s heart carries you through the story and enriches your reading experience. I shed a tear on the last page and you probably will too, and like me, you’ll probably be looking forward to the next book already. More, please, Dr. Quartey!
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