African Psycho by Alain Mabanckou
Natalie Haynes is unimpressed by an African murder mystery
The literary murder mystery is a tricky mix. You feel that the two genres slightly fear each other, and shouldn’t be allowed to meet. Murder mysteries are seen as intrinsically lowbrow – mass-produced, populist and unputdownable. Conversely, literary novels may win all the prizes, but are only actually read by people judging prizes (who are paid to read them), reviewers (also paid to read them) and the parents of the author. For every We Need To Talk About Kevin, which smashes the distinction between compulsive read and literary powerhouse, there are ten more that fall flat. And marrying the two genres once is no guarantee that you can repeat the trick – ask Donna Tartt, whose spectacular debut, The Secret History (murder and Euripides. Yep, in one book, and one not written by Euripides, who loved a high body count), was followed a decade later by the flabby and disappointing The Little Friend (child is murdered, read 400 pages, still don’t know whodunit).
The latest to attempt this mix is African Psycho by the Congolese/French author Alain Mabanckou. First published in French in 1993, to wide acclaim, it has now been translated into English. It’s written from the perspective of Gregoire Nakobomayo, a car mechanic with a dirty secret: he idolises a recently deceased serial killer, Angoualima, and plans to continue his work. He talks to his hero’s grave, and plots to kill his girlfriend, Germaine. It’s a short, well-paced book that takes us inside the mind of its murderous narrator with ease. The only problem is that it isn’t somewhere I really want to be.
The murderer as narrator has been done often and better, since its first instance in Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, more than 80 years ago. And the sympathetic yet murderous protagonist has been done much better too – in Patrick Suskind’s Perfume, for a start. But Gregoire has none of the depth of Süskind’s anti-hero Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, who is monstrous but utterly compelling. He’s just too thinly drawn, with physical oddities standing in for characterisation. And I realise I may be a philistine, but stream-of-consciousness prose just makes me tired. Others may admire seven pages of inner monologue without a full stop; I just want to mark it and send it back.
Perhaps the real problem with this book is that it feels so old. Hearing the thoughts of a male narrator who hates and fears women, views them, irrespective of their profession, as prostitutes, and fantasises about killing them has surely had its grimy moment in literature. American Psycho, to which this novel is either an hommage or a burlesque, depending on your view, was published in 1991. Seventeen years later, misogyny is still boring.
Mostly, when highbrow meets murder mystery, the height of brow goes undamaged but the mystery is so feeble that even someone who had only read the back cover of an Agatha Christie could solve it in minutes. Look at Gosford Park, Robert Altman’s dissection of the English class system, featuring a stellar ensemble cast, a Christie-esque country-house setting and a murderer you could have guessed from the cinema car park without the bother of watching the film. African Psycho has an even weaker plot twist – the eventual murderer is revealed on the final page to be a character we have only heard about in passing, and never met. This summary resolution is just another irritation.
This book promises a darkly humorous tale, but it never really delivers. If dark, funny murder mysteries are what you’re looking for, you’d do far better to read something by Christopher Brookmyre. Or if you’re after a highbrow lit-feast in translation, read the peerless Queen of the South, by Arturo Perez-Reverte.
African Psycho is published by Serpent's Tail