Hamish Hamilton, £12.99, 216pp. £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Oil On Water, By Helon Habila

This masterly third novel by Helon Habila, a former winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing and of the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book from the Africa Region, draws on the tradition of the classic detective novel but also operates on a deeper, metaphorical and philosophical level.

Habila could not have chosen a more serious or topical subject. The intricate and often deadly politics of oil in Nigeria, Africa's largest producer of petroleum, are inescapable. Writer Ken Saro-Wiwa's protest against the government's failure to enforce regulations on the prospecting foreign companies cost him his life in 1995. The oil industry has been associated with corruption, violence and bloodshed, wreaking ecological devastation on the Niger Delta region and its fishing and farming communities, which benefit little from the enormous profits involved, fuelling ethnic conflict and guerrilla activity. At the same time as local lives and livelihoods are constantly endangered, the kidnapping of foreigners for ransom has proliferated over the years, with opportunists vying with self-selected freedom fighters.

Rufus, the main protagonist of Habila's first-person narrative, is a keen young Nigerian reporter paired on a mission with his mentor, the legendary journalist Zaq, a man who, though now fallen from grace and alcohol-driven, still has wisdom to impart. They are pursuing what the older man describes as "almost a perfect story": to find a British woman being held hostage by militants fighting to protect their environment from greedy multinational oil companies. Rufus digs resolutely for the truth. The investigation that takes him on a trail deep into the interior of the river delta is also his route to a wider understanding of the political realities and of himself. By twists and turns, digressions and flashbacks adding to the tension of the unfolding plot, we learn of Rufus's own background and motivation, as he is forced to journey inwards prompted by events and changing emotions - fear, anger, excitement. In the quest for the missing woman, he finds himself increasingly implicated. As Zaq reminds him early on, "Remember, the story is not always the final goal."

Unlike some of his characters, Habila never puts a foot wrong, and his use of the journalist as detective is assured and effective (I would gladly follow Rufus's development in another adventure). His first novel, Waiting For an Angel, also featured a young hack thrust into a learning situation, for Habila recognises that journalism – with its power to challenge government and give citizens a voice – is central to new democracies. The writer plays a crucial role as witness/observer, choosing what to record or to suppress, sometimes taking risks with words that could prove fatal.

The atmospheric evocation of place in Oil on Water is matched by deft characterisation that makes is possible to empathise with baddies as well as goodies. Habila has a filmic ability to etch scenes on the imagination. The book delivers a compassionate and emotive exposition of how far-away political decisions can devastate families, scar innocent individuals for life, literally and psychologically.

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