Kwei Quartey is a surgeon and mystery author whose sleuth, Ghanaian police inspector Darko Dawson, this year solved his second big mystery in "Children of the Street." Quartey's debut novel, a mystery also featuring Dawson, was "The Wife of the Gods." Born and raised in Ghana himself, the son of an African American mother and a Ghanaian father who were both university professors, Quartey says he wanted to be a writer from childhood. Here, The Skanner News talks with the author about his novels, his home country and writing.
The Skanner News: Your background is so interesting – one foot on the African continent and one foot in America, like the president.
Quartey: I think you're right, and I think even maybe more so than the president because my childhood was spent on both continents -- on the American continent and the African continent, in Ghana specifically.
TSN: Here at The Skanner News we get a lot of books by African and African American authors but very few are published by mainstream publishing houses. So what was your journey in getting this published by Random House – it's your second novel?
Quartey: Yes, the first was "Wife of the Gods." It's been a long journey. I guess I should go all the way back to childhood, when I started writing novellas and short stories. I was very much stimulated by the number of books in my house. My parents were both university lecturers in Ghana, and I was educated by the number of both fiction books and non-fictions books in the house. So I always wanted to write, and the mystery genre has always been my favorite. I had a number of characters – one James Bond-ish type guy, I always had a group of kids who went around solving mysteries. So it really started then and really persisted all the way through my teens. It took a back seat to medicine, which I studied and got my MD at Howard University.
So it wasn't until after I got out of med school that my writing was rekindled. And that's when I started sending out stuff to multiple agents and getting back rejection letters – of which there were probably hundreds.
For a while I was writing stuff based in Los Angeles, some thrillers, and nothing was really gelling. And it just happened that at the turn of the millennium, around 2000, I was in Paris and just for a couple days and I was in hotel rooms, and I came across this program on French TV which dealt with a local detective in Ivory Coast who's trying to solve a mystery in a village. And what he was doing was using the superstitions and beliefs in magical powers of the local people, trying to trick them into confessing or stating what they had seen as witnesses. I was really intrigued, having grown up in Ghana since I was 18 or so I was aware of some of these beliefs. I thought – if I could write that kind of story, and make it a murder mystery, and set it in Ghana.
And that's when the first idea came for "The Wife of the Gods."
TSN: So the girls are indentured because of things their families did years ago?
Quartey: Sometimes even generations ago. The idea is to get the protection of the gods, and to give these children over. So in that setting mixing it up with these magical beliefs and why bad things happen to good people, which is a question that more Africans ask than, say, Americans ask is, say, why did this happen to me? Not so much how?
So that book deals with that aspect.
And the second book, "Children of the Streets," is a little bit more of an urban modern 21st century story that deals maybe a little less with tradition but certainly there is one aspect that is covered, and that is proverbs. Anybody who reads this book sees that proverbs become an important part of the story. African proverbs specifically.
TSN: And then you have another book coming out next year.
Quartey: I'm hoping it will be next year, if I can persuade Random House to work that fast on it. I'm working on a novel that I'm tentatively calling "Men of the Rig," and this deals with the brave new world of oil exploration which is underway in Ghana, which is producing oil since December, 2010, and of course the issue is, is this really going to create a new Ghana, or is it going to be much the same story as gold exploration, which does not enrich the lives of even the people in those gold-mining towns, so in other words, do it like Norway, which knows how to handle its oil production, or do like Nigeria, which is a mess, basically.
TSN: Who are your inspirations?
Quartey: I think the first inspiration is certainly Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's creation, Sherlock Holmes, because he's really the prototype, along with Allen Poe's creations as well, of testing, looking for small things that give something away. His character actually is based on Arthur Conan Doyle's character the Professor, Dr. Joseph Bell, who could always tell a lot about a person by observing what he wears or how he walks or what mud was on his shoes or something like that. So testing, or observation, is a central point in my books. My hero Darko Dawson, has in that regard, an ability called synesthesia in which he is able to perceive certain senses by another sense. For example when he hears a voice he can actually feel it – either wet, or dry and prickly – and this gives him the ability sometimes to catch people out in a lie.
He also is keen observer of people and their behavior. So Sherlock Homes comes through in that way. And I think even subliminally Sherlock Holmes comes through because, as many people know, he had an addiction to cocaine, and Darko Dawson's addiction is marijuana.
TSN: So are you a doctor now?
Quartey: I'm an internist but through years of training I've moved my interest to chronic wound care, so I'm a specialist in chronic wound care and I do emergency medicine as well.
One of the things I definitely want to do it put Ghana on the crime fiction map. So if we're familiar with our heroes, some of whom are associated with specific cities – Phillip Marlowe in Los Angeles, who is the creation of Raymond Chandler, the classic noir writer, and then we have the more modern day ones – Harry Bosch from Michael Connolly's great creation is also in Los Angeles.
I feel that I was Akkra, and generally Ghana, to enter into that panoply of detective cities – that's the first thing. We do have some examples from South Africa, specifically Botswana and the Republic of SA. Of course I'm referring to the Number One Ladies Detective Agency, which is a different kind of mystery by the way – it's soft. And then we have Michael Stanley's creation, Detective Kubu. And then we do have one writer whose name escapes me but his character is based in Benin but he goes to different countries on the west coast – he is White, so I think there's a difference there as well. Because my heritage is not only American, but it's also African and Ghanaian.
Find out more about Quartey's books on his website, http://www.kweiquartey.com/ .