Shining a Light on Anglophone African Detective Fiction 

Matthew J. Christensen


I cannot plausibly claim, no matter how entertainingly, that my initiation into the pleasures of detective fiction came through the insult “No shit, Sherlock”. I was a voracious reader early enough that I must have encountered more than a few children’s puzzle-clue mysteries before I learned how to wield Sherlock Holmes’ name to ridicule statements of the obvious.  

But the regularity with which the insult was flung in friendly and not so friendly ways by friends and family suggests something of the manner that detective fiction, especially those forms of it represented by Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation, had colonized our cultural imaginary irrespective of any first-hand knowledge of actual murder mysteries.  

Indeed, in the cultural spaces I continue to inhabit, the crime mystery is so entrenched that wide swaths of human activity are routinely comprehended within the mystery’s narrative architecture, characters, and tropes. Exhibit A: more than a few cancer researchers, historians, food scientists, and neighborhood gossips have been described as the Sherlock Holmes of their respective trade. 

When I first entertained the idea of a scholarly study of Africa’s robust history of mysteries and detective stories, I held out the hope that African writers had found a way to break the English sleuth’s grip on storytelling practices and on the cultural imaginary more generally. Truth be told, I would have been happy to find a radically decolonized and Africanized detective genre that nevertheless retained all the reading pleasures of a Doyle classic. Looking back now, I don’t know what that would have looked like. The reality turns out to be much more complicated and, for that reason, much more interesting.  

In the 200+ crime mysteries that I uncovered for my book, Anglophone African Detective Fiction 1940-2020: The State, the Citizen, and the Sovereign Ideal, Kenyan, Nigerian, Ghanaian, South African and other Anglophone authors routinely name-check Sherlock Holmes, James Hadley Chase, and Peter Cheyney. But the same writers also painstakingly localize settings, conflicts, and the animating vulnerabilities that give the most suspenseful mysteries their emotional punch.  

With this Africanization of surface variables, Anglophone African detective fiction writers also do something much more profound: they mine and test the limits of the genre’s potentiality as a mode of critique to assess the continually evolving sociopolitical conditions of late colonial and post-Independence African nation-states. By activating the detective story’s Implicit promise of justice under the law, these texts—often with a playful wink at the reader—ask fundamental questions about sovereign self-rule. And while such questions are not unique to African iterations of the detective genre, African writers have made them their own aesthetically, thematically, and ideologically.  

We currently live in a moment when Anglophone African detective fiction is increasingly visible globally. The list of internationally circulating authors is still criminally short: Kwei Quartey, Mukoma wa Ngugi, Parker Bilal, and Malla Nunn, to name the most prominent. One effect of this global visibility is to put African crime novels and novelists in direct conversation with their counterparts from other continents, sometimes quite literally, at book festivals and on conference panels.  

Another effect of the increasing presence of African writers on the global scene is to illuminate a reality that was there all along. Despite the myriad ways that Sherlock Holmes still permeates various cultural imaginaries, detective fiction has always been a global genre, co-created out of the transnational circulation of texts, aesthetics, and ideas. Colonial economies and systems of prestige have long left African voices overshadowed in this process. But, to acknowledge the process of co-creation is in itself decolonial. It is a conceptualization of literary production that decenters Sherlock Holmes and the larger British, American, and French canon.  

And to decenter Sherlock Holmes is to get us to a place where African detective fiction writers get their due. My hope, going forward, is that afficionados, critics, and scholars look as quickly to Lagos, Nairobi, and Johannesburg as they do to London, New York, and Stockholm for clues about the detective story’s aesthetic possibilities and critical capacities. Obviously. 

Anglophone African Detective Fiction hardback book

Matthew J. Christensen

9781847013873
Hardback
March 2024
244pp
James Currey
£75 / $110

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MATTHEW J. CHRISTENSEN is Professor, Department of Literatures and Cultural Studies, University of Texas. He is the author of Rebellious Histories: The Amistad Slave Revolt and the Cultures of Late Twentieth-Century Black Transnationalism (2012) and editor of Staging the Amistad: Three Sierra Leonean Plays (2019).