Under African skies: Férey’s Zulu and Sherif’s Bound to Secrecy

By chance, I’ve read two novels set in Africa recently: Caryl Férey’s Zulu (translated by Howard Curtis, World Noir/Europa Editions 2010) and Vamba Sherif’s Bound to Secrecy (HopeRoad 2015). While different to one another in many respects, both are highly interesting, worthwhile reads that explore the key theme of power in African contexts.

Caryl Férey is an intriguing author. He’s French, but chooses to set his crime novels in countries far from home, such as New Zealand (Utu), South Africa (Zulu) and Argentina (Mapuche). What unites his work is a focus on ethnic/social minorities and power structures, which are explored in gritty, noir crime narratives.

Zulu, the winner of the French Grand Prix for Best Crime Novel of 2008, is a highly absorbing read, which features the talented but psychologically damaged head of the Cape Town homicide unit, Ali Neumann. He and his team investigate the brutal slaying of a young woman in a post-Apartheid South Africa fractured by racial tension, violence and drugs crimes. The novel provides both a fascinating insight into difficult aspects of the Apartheid past (such as the rivalry between the black ANC and Inkatha movements) and contemporary challenges such as AIDS.

Unsurprisingly, there’s lots of hard-hitting violence throughout, which makes for uncomfortable reading, but is (mostly) linked to the larger social and political contexts the novel explores. On the basis of Zulu, I’m keen to read Férey’s other two works soon.

Vamba Sherif is another intriguing and very well travelled author. He was born in Kolahun, Liberia in 1973, moved to Kuwait in his early early teens, then settled in Syria and The Netherlands, where he read Law. His crime novel Bound to Secrecy is the first published by independent publisher HopeRoad, which aims to support literary voices neglected by the mainstream.

In contrast to Zulu, which is 400 pages in length, Bound to Secrecy is a compact read – more of a novella – focusing on the mysterious disappearance of paramount chief Tetese in the Liberian border town of Wologizi. In terms of its tone, the narrative also differs enormously to Férey’s work – it has an otherworldly, unsettling quality, partly due to the remoteness of Wologizi and partly due to the author’s subversion of crime conventions. Detective William Mawolo’s investigation is continually hampered by the silence of the townsfolk, the contradictory evidence he uncovers and a series of disturbing events that leave him and the reader in a state of confusion. The novel has echoes of Kafka, and the figure of Mawolo reminded me of Dürrenmatt’s compromised detectives, who seek clarity and resolution, but can’t always find them.

Unlike Zulu, Bound to Secrecy doesn’t provide detailed information about its country’s troubled history (the West African country of Liberia). Instead, it explores the central theme of power – both on those who wield it and those who are subject to it – in an elliptical, abstract way. The narrative also has some interesting things to say about gender roles and the power of women. Beautifully written, this compelling literary crime novel will draw me back for a second reading.

There’s a good interview here with Sherif, which also provides a bit of information about Liberian literature and culture.


On a sad note, we heard yesterday that crime writer Ruth Rendell has died. One of the most prominent and ground-breaking UK crime authors of the twentieth-century, she’ll be hugely missed. Her final novel, Dark Corners, will be published in October (and may we all still be writing at 85).

There have been some wonderful obituaries and pieces that explore Rendell’s legacy as a crime writer and as a Labour peer in the House of Lords. I’ve added a few links below:

Ruth Rendell

The Guardian obituary

Tribute by Val McDermid in The Guardian

Financial Times obituary by Barry Forshaw

Appreciation by Margot Kinberg at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist

New York Times obituary

A list of Rendell’s works via the British Council

10 thoughts on “Under African skies: Férey’s Zulu and Sherif’s Bound to Secrecy

    • You’re welcome. I know that feeling all too well. The TBR pile is a bit mountainous at the moment. Do let me know what you make of Zulu when you read it.

  1. Thanks very much, Mrs. P., for the kind mention and link. Rendell’s loss is very sad news. As to the novels, they both sound really fascinating. I’m not usually one for a lot of brutal violence, but sometimes it is a natural fallout from a plot. I feel that way, for instance, about Roger Smith’s work. And I do like learning more about Africa through its crime fiction.

    • It was a lovely piece, Margot – thank *you*.

      I’ve not heard of Roger Smith – will have to check his work out. Is there a best place to start?

      There are lots of very good writers producing crime fiction on Africa, aren’t there. Deon Meyer and Malla Nunn are another two whose work I like very much. I also keep meaning to try Margie Orford’s novels. Onto the ever-expanding list…

    • Thanks very much for the recommendation, Lexie. I hadn’t come across this series, but will definitely check it out – looks very promising.

  2. I’m a recent convert to South African crime fiction (even if it’s not set in S. Africa, like Michael Stanley’s work). I’ve got Roger Smith and Margie Orford waiting for me on my teetering TBR pile. I’ve read Caryl Ferey’s Zulu and rather enjoyed it, despite the violence and difficult themes. I thought it was quite realistic and well-documented, even though written by an ‘outsider’.

    • Yes, there’s a really interesting body of (South) African work. I was also intrigued by Ferey writing as an ‘outsider’. He’s clearly quite ambitious in that respect given the settings of his other works. I guess there’s an argument to be made about insiders ‘seeing’ a country more clearly than its inhabitants, but it must be quite a challenge getting all the details right – and more of a risk of getting things wrong. The level of research must be extremely high.

  3. Thanks for the information on the two books set in Africa. I want to find more books set there and more authors from that area. And those are new to me.

    Thanks also for the links for Ruth Rendell tributes. I had seen the top two, but not Margot’s piece, or the others.

    • You’re welcome tracybham. I also find African crime fiction (or fiction set in Africa) hugely interesting, and it’s good to find new authors (there are a few more mentioned in the comments above).

      If I see any further good Rendell links, I’ll add these in. I liked Margot’s piece very much.

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