Michael Stanley is the writing
team of Michael
Sears and Stanley
Johannesburg, South Africa, and Trollip divides his time between
Minnesota, and Knysna, South
During the 1980s, we would rent
small airplane in Johannesburg and fill it with friends,
food – in that order. After
would head for Zimbabwe or Botswana to view and photograph
birds – and to savour South African wines around a hardwood
In the early evening on one
trip to the Savuti
plains of the stunning Chobe National Park in Botswana, we witnessed lions stalking
killing a wildebeest. Right behind was a pack of hyenas, harassing the
get to the carcass. Sometimes
would bite a lion’s tail.
When the lion
angrily turned on it, another hyena would dart in and steal some of the
flesh. By morning
there was nothing left
of the wildebeest except its horns. The hyenas had finished everything
including the bones.
That night, over a glass or two
of wine, we
decided that if we were ever to commit murder, the best way to get rid
body would be to leave it for the hyenas.
No body, no case. And
suggested an intriguing premise for a crime novel.
The idea languished until 2003,
when we decided
we should do something more than just think about it.
A month later, Stanley remembers receiving a draft of
first chapter from Michael. In
perfect murder became imperfect as a game ranger and a professor
a corpse, just before a hyena finished devouring it.
So there was a body, and there was a case.
Stanley liked the chapter and asked
what happened next. Michael
Thus started a long-distance
between us that resulted in the publication in April 2008 of A Carrion Death in the United States (HarperCollins) and the UK (Headline).
Stanley had just retired from an
career in educational computing in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Michael, a mathematician,
managing a science division for a large mining house in Johannesburg.
Using email and VOIP (voice over internet protocol) in the
Skype, we hammered out the outline of a novel and started writing.
Neither of us had written
fiction before, so there
was much to learn about how it differed from academic writing. Nor had we written
together, so we had to
learn where each other’s strengths lay, how to harness each
side, and how to differ civilly. But
were long-time friends, and our main goal was to have fun developing an
had concocted almost twenty years before.
And what an adventure it was. Believing in the age-old
advice that one
should write about things one knows, we decided that the professor, who
of the two people to discover the body in the desert, should be the
of us having been
professors, we liked the idea of a smart professor solving a mysterious
in the Kalahari! It
obvious to us, however, that the police would have to be involved. So in Chapter Two, an
Superintendent in the Criminal Investigation Department of the Botswana
David Bengu by name, jumped into his Land Rover in Gaborone and set off to investigate.
By the time he arrived at the
scene of the
murder, Bengu, nicknamed ‘Kubu’ –
Setswana for hippopotamus for his
considerable bulk – had taken over as the protagonist. We were astonished how this
character took over and elbowed himself into the number one position. We were obviously
naïve, because we had
thought that writers controlled their characters rather than the other
Kubu continued to evolve
throughout the book,
ending up as an appealing character, who loves his wife, his food, and
his wine. He is
normally placid with a keen brain and
sly sense of humour but, like his animal namesake, he can be formidable
dangerous. Kubu is
a policeman one does
not want to cross.
From the outset, we wanted to
write more than a
murder mystery. We
wanted readers to learn
something about the sights, sounds, and cultures of Botswana.
We wanted them to smell the desert and imagine the
over the Kalahari. We
were committed to
depict this remarkable country as authentically as possible.
So we continued to visit Botswana regularly to verify the
aspects of the book, as well as to ensure that the fictional aspects
in today’s environment.
In all of this
we were blessed with good luck. For
example, after we had repeatedly tried to make an appointment, the then
director of the Botswana Criminal Investigation Department (CID)
told us that we had worn him down, and that he would spend an hour with
us. In the end he
spent a whole Saturday
afternoon showing us around. And
afternoon it was. We
learned about the Botswana police and a number of famous
cases. He showed us
the Police Training School that he had been instrumental
gave us information
about the workings of the CID and the relationship of the Botswana police with their counterparts
in South Africa and Scotland Yard. And while we were touring Gaborone, he deflected repeated phone
from a subordinate who wanted the Director’s advice on
handling a gang the
police had just arrested, who were armed to the teeth with AK47s. The Director brushed the
phone calls off with
an abrupt ‘I can’t talk now.
showing some people around’.
The first question we are
usually asked is how
we can write a novel together. In
contrast to conventional wisdom, we have found collaborating on a work
fiction to be a wonderful experience.
brainstorm nearly every day, even though we are thousands of miles
hammer out the next few scenes of the book.
One of us writes the first draft and emails it to the
other – an eager
reader. A few hours
later the draft is
returned with edits and comments.
then go over the edits one by one, eventually deciding how best to word
particular passage. Each
back and forth several times and so is eventually written not by one of
by Michael Stanley.
Most commentators on A Carrion Death mention Alexander McCall
Smith’s Botswana series featuring Precious
Ramotswe. Although A Carrion Death deals with death, murder,
shenanigans, which Precious would find abhorrent, it shares with McCall
books a love of this part of Africa, the dignity of its people,
friendliness, and their respect for friends and family.
have been delighted by the
positive reception Detective Kubu has received.
He will re-appear in our second book, A
Deadly Trade, which Headline will release in April 2009. Unlike A
Carrion Death, which is set in the arid Kalahari
A Deadly Trade is set in the lush
riverine forests of the Linyanti
in northern Botswana. The back story is about
how the Rhodesian
Bush War forged strange relationships, both good and evil. The story itself, set in
present day Botswana,
is about the dissolution of two such bonds.
A CARRION DEATH is available in paperback
Publishers, October 2008