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Tail of the Blue Bird, By Nii Ayikwei Parkes

CSI and palm wine in Ghana

Reviewed,Jonathan Gibbs
Tuesday 30 June 2009 00:00 BST

Here is a delightful book that combines the basic tug of the whodunnit with the more elegant pleasures of the literary novel. Like the best detective stories, it has a questing hero, and a vivid sense of locale. Kayo Odamtten is a young Ghanaian returned home after studying in the UK. He is happy enough working as a forensic pathologist in Accra. But when a strange crime is discovered in a remote forest village – by the horrified girlfriend of the Transport Minister, no less – Kayo is dragged into the investigation by corrupt police Inspector PJ Donker, whose idea of recruitment is the threat of imprisonment on conspiracy charges.

Insp Donker sends Kayo off with the warning, "Don't return until you have a good scientific theory and report – CSI-style." Kayo finds the "evil" evidence: unidentified fleshy remains, crawling with maggots, in the corner of a hut belonging to a cocoa farmer who hasn't been seen for a month. He does his CSI best – taking samples for DNA testing, using hi-tech "blue merge" goggles to spot patches of urine on the floor, creating a digital model of the crime scene on his laptop. More importantly, he listens to the locals, especially the old hunter Opanyin Poku.

The hunter shares some of the book's narrative, giving Kayo clues in the form of rambling tales of village history as they sit around drinking palm wine laced with the medicine man's own potions. Kayo may be "caught in a void between instinct and knowledge", but his courtesy and respect for non-Western wisdom mean that there is no real danger of his not getting to the bottom of the mystery.

Tail of the Blue Bird is not overly ambitious, but everything it sets out to do, it does admirably. Nii Ayikwei Parkes surely knows the effect the Ghanaian dialogue will have; he doesn't translate or explain, and this additional layer of mystery (for the average British reader) only adds to the strength of its lyricism and insight.

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