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LAST SEEN IN LAPAZ
by Kwei Quartey
Soho Crime, February 2023
342 pages
$27.95
ISBN: 164129339X


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Kwei Quartey has been introducing readers to Ghanaian life ever since his first mystery was published in 2009. After five entries in the Darko Dawson series, he turned his focus to Emma Djan, a private investigator in Accra, along with the team she works with. In this third entry, Emma is tasked with tracking down Ngozi, a young woman who abandoned a promising academic career when she fell in love with Femi, a handsome young con man. Whether or not Ngozi wants to be found is in question, but the case grows more worrying when Femi is found murdered. Emma will have to go undercover and into danger to track Ngozi down and discover who murdered her lover.

Quartey's tone has grown darker over the course of this series, and LAST SEEN IN LAPAZ is no exception. Rather than being restricted to looking over Emma's shoulder as she conducts her investigation, the perspective shifts to peer into Femi's past: his teen years engaged in petty crime, a stint in prison, and eventually his foray into human smuggling. He's able to clothe himself in a certain amount of charm as he taps into the dreams of ambitious Nigerians who feel trapped in poverty and are susceptible to the claims of a "migration agent" that safe passage to Europe can be arranged for a fee.

Femi diversifies his business ventures when he persuades a Ghanaian woman who runs a profitable prostitution ring in Accra, that he can supply her with Nigerian girls. As they go into business together, Ngozi joins him in managing the sex workers, but finds out too late that it's a line of work that can be deadly.

With so much of the narrative spent with a callous criminal and a young woman who seems all too eager to join him in his cruel endeavors, the story can be a challenging read. Quartey has depicted many aspects of West African life in his mysteries, but this one delves deeper into its dark side, and travels further, even following the desperate journey of a family journeying through the deserts of Niger and Libya. They're hoping to reach Europe but find themselves in a hellish dead end. While their story isn't integral to the mystery itself, it's a memorable depiction of the human cost of a vicious trade that we rarely see apart from its all-too-frequent terminus in the waters of the Mediterranean. The tawdry experience of life as a sex worker is likewise brought to the page, as Emma goes undercover to track down Ngozi's whereabouts.

Altogether, the mystery is skillfully woven into a larger story of criminality, salted with a sprinkling of colorful pidgin (helpfully defined in a glossary) that adds to the flavor of the Ghanaian setting. Quartey provides a vivid depiction of lives that are too often overlooked in news stories that treat Africa as a void at the edge of the map.

Barbara Fister is an academic librarian, columnist, and author of the Anni Koskinen mystery series.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, February 2023

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