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by Robert Wilson
Harvest Books, July 2003
352 pages
ISBN: 0156011131

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

I enjoyed tremendously Robert Wilson's A SMALL DEATH IN LISBON (1999) and his THE BLIND MAN OF SEVILLE (2003). Both these books were "double stories," each mixing two narratives from the past into a single tale, seemingly different stories united like two sides of the same coin. INSTRUMENTS OF DEATH preceeded these two "hits" and shows Wilson finding his way in forming a thriller. From Lisbon and Seville we go now to West Africa, a region notorious for being the graveyard of white men.

Bruce Medway is a white man living an expatriate's life with similar men, white, black, oriental, or mixed, trying to make a buck in expediting the rich commerce of these countries between traders, crooks, and government officers (it's hard to know which of the three is the most corrupt).

Medway, known as a "fixer," works with exports and imports, negotiates contracts, organizes transport, collects money, and sometimes finds missing people. We pick him up in Benin, where he is handling the arrival of rice from Thailand for a local woman, Madame Severnou. She pays him with a cotton sheetful of the local currency in small bills. He in turn withholds the proper papers from her. She's a dangerous woman to irritate, and she gets irritated. Medway, his servant Moses, and his German girlfriend Heike stay up most of the night counting the money, and they find that Madame Severnou has shortchanged him by a significant amount.

Now Medway is caught in between the deadly Madame Severnou and his principal in this deal, an English-Ghanian named Jack, living in Lome, Togo. Jack is a large, lazy, ordinarily easy-going man with big appetites, including one for women. He doesn't bother about the missing money now, but asks Medway to go to Accra, Ghana, to help a friend, a Syrian multi-millionaire known as B.B. B.B. wants Medway to find one of his employees, a white man named Steve Kershaw, who has disappeared.

In searching for this Kershaw, Medway runs into several European women, a druggie-alcoholic who is an official at the American Embassy, a man named Charles who runs a bar and is usually friendly, but a dangerous man once he gets drunk, and a white bank president who is visiting the area with his wife. Kershaw is found dead in a swimming pool, and his wife flies from England to take charge of the body. There is also a high African official whose name is never given, before whom Kershaw is dragged blindfolded by some very rough policemen and questioned about his interest in Kershaw. Medway's friends know of this official and know that it's absolute death to disobey or otherwise cross him.

It's an oddly assorted bunch of characters all seemingly looking for something that ultimately will make big money for them, and it all seems to revolve around Kershaw and the rice deal that Medway had arranged as in-between for Jack and Madame Severnou. Medway is caught in the middle and he gets beat up more than a private eye in a Dashiell Hammett novel. At one point he is caught outside a place where Madame Severnou is conducting business and brought in to face her. Unlike the usual villain, who likes to gloat like a cat with a mouse, she wastes no words with him, but simply says to her men, "Kill him."

In the conclusion everything gets sorted out, but not before a number of people get hurt or killed and Bruce Medway is led through a good number of surprises. The story tends to emphasize the corruption that is endemic in an undeveloped country, a country where the climate is so miserable that non-native would have any reason to live there except to grab some of the graft money that circulates so easily, but dangerously.

With this novel, Wilson has shown how deft he is at creating a page-turning story. He's a natural-born storyteller. He's still finding his way, though, in smoothing his plot to take out some of the rough, but still quite interesting, corners. All the skill that went into his PORTUGAL novel and his SEVILLE novel are shown here in varying degrees of development. It's the kind of book that once started, you don't want to put down.

Note: This is a reprint of a book originally published in 1995.

Reviewed by Eugene Aubrey Stratton, September 2003

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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