In his first novel, Wife of the Gods, Kwei Quartey introduces us to an intriguing lead character, an exotic setting, and a story that takes some compelling twists and turns along the way. When a young female medical student is murdered in the forest between two small villages in the Volta Region of Ghana, big-city detective Darko Dawson is sent to take over the investigation from the tiny local police force. Dawson knows the native language and has a history with the villages; his mother came from the area, and it was the last place she was seen before her disappearance 25 years earlier. Perhaps his work investigating Gladys Mensah's murder might also lead him to some answers about what happened to his mother, but meanwhile, the case raises plenty of its own questions. Who would want to kill this bright and promising young woman - and why? Were local traditionalists threatened by her modern medical knowledge and efforts to educate about AIDS, and by her campaign against the trokosi tradition in the village of Bedome? Or was there a less complex motive? The only thing that seems certain is that the local police inspector's chosen suspect is probably not guilty of the crime.
Quartey weaves several themes into the story - the contrast and conflict between old beliefs and modern ways in West Africa, the crisis of AIDS on the continent - but ultimately, it's a mystery, and I wanted to find out what happened. I liked the way so much of the story was told via the setting and characters. The story takes detours that don't seem to have much to do with the primary plot, but they establish and help define the characters through showing what they do and how they think, rather than just describing it, which I found appealing. Quartey has created some fascinating characters here, particularly his protagonist, Detective Inspector Darko Dawson. He's not always the most likable guy - he has an impulsive temper and some less-than-admirable habits - but he is dedicated to his family, and takes his work seriously and personally. As he pursued various leads and potential suspects - each of whom had a specific, unique reason for wanting Gladys Mensah out of the way - I was completely along for the ride, trying to solve the case alongside him. And when I realized just before the end that I wasn't quite on the right track, I was actually glad - I enjoyed the challenge, but I really wanted Dawson to solve the case and not me.
This book is intended to be the first in a series, and I think I just might be along for the ride on Dawson's next adventure as well. I enjoyed my foray into the world and the characters that Kwei Quartey created in his native country of Ghana - although he is now a physician in Pasadena, California - and would like to visit it again, with Dawson and whatever mystery comes his way next.