Leye Adenle is a rising star in the world of crime writing; his two Lagos-set novels put him at the forefront of Naija noir’s breakthrough into the world market. This is no flash in the pan, Adenle’s novels can be compared to the best of contemporary European and American crime. I caught up with him at the Capital Crime Festival in London a couple of weeks ago. Adenle is a man with a lot to say, all of it interesting. He began publishing short stories and his work is featured in two recent anthologies, Sunshine Noir (White Sun Books, 2016) and Lagos Noir (Akashik Books, 2018). Easy Motion Tourist (2016) and When Trouble Sleeps (2018), his first two crime novels, are published in the UK by Cassava Republic Press. Adenle has also written a genre-busting novel, The Beautiful Side of the Moon (Hoatzin Books, 2019), a sci-fi/traditional Nigerian storytelling crossover.
Interestingly, Adenle’s grandfather was a king, Oba Adeleye Adenle I of the Oshogbo in South West Nigeria, although Adenle now lives in London. His crime novels feature Amaka, a powerful force for good and a champion of women’s rights in a world dominated by powerful and unscrupulous misogynistic men. The third novel in the Amaka series will be out next year.
For many British readers, Nigeria may be little more than a collection of clichés and bad news stories but it’s a vast and diverse country. Adenle’s novels reveal so much more, particularly about Lagos. They’re not just about the underbelly of the city but also the beautiful, exuberant life of one of the world’s great cities. However, I didn’t interview Adenle because of the exoticism of the locations in his books but rather because he one of the best noir writers out there.
We met up after Adenle’s book signing. I began by asking him about the panel he had sat on earlier that morning, ‘Crime on a Global Scale’, a look at international crime writing. It was clear to the audience that the members of the panel were good friends; they put on quite a show.
‘It was lovely, anytime I’m on a panel with Vaseem [Khan] and Abir [Mukherjee] is always great . . . love them.’
Adenle has cited James Patterson and James Ellroy as influences, and I’m curious about what that means. Does he channel something of those writers in his work or is it more a general influence? First though, Adenle has mentioned reading James Hadley Chase, a writer largely forgotten these days (the author of 90 mysteries, several of which have been filmed), where does he fit in?
‘So I think it’s down to my parents and the library they had when I was growing up. They had a bunch of his books, a whole shelf of James Hadley Chase and I had access to that. [Because of the access to the library] I was reading Baldwin and the rest of them before I even knew who they were. You know, you just get bored, you pick up a book and read it. I believe that every single thing you’ve read, in fact, every single thing you’ve encountered, every single thing that’s happened, impacts on you, affects and influences your writing, influences everything about you, and if you’re a writer what is writing if not an expression of the sum of all your experiences?’
Researching for this interview, I came across a series of books called Pacesetters, which were popular in Africa, and I wondered how important they were to Adenle.
‘Ah, the Pacesetters series, that’s another huge influence on, I think, any African writer of a certain age. It’s this series by Macmillan Press and it was by African authors, all over the West African coast I believe because it was English speaking and it was a wide range of genres from romance to thrillers to dramas. We read them all, we used to exchange Pacesetters novels in school, as well as Mills and Boon stories, which were romance but I confess to having read a few of them when I was a lot younger. We didn’t have social media, obviously, so the way you transmitted culture was through physical books. I read quite a lot of those and I remember when I started writing for the fun of it as a young child I was trying to write books like the thrillers I’d read. I think the books are still available on Amazon now, I think I’ve seen a few. I searched for them many years ago and there were none, but recently I’ve saw some pop up. It’s a great collection of African writing.’
Crime writing is entertainment but it’s much more too; does Adenle think of his novels as social critique?
‘I think crime writing in particular cannot but be social critique because any crime is born out of society, out of circumstances, crime is a socio-political thing. A lot of crime is about hunger, there’s another form of crime that is about greed, it’s about power. And the socio-economic dynamics of any society can very much predict the kind of crime you have. So it’s not possible to write a crime story without coming across as if you have a vision, or a mission, a message, it’s not the intent but it is inevitable.’
Noir writers tend to be a very responsible bunch. Adenle’s novels are very dark because they explore the underbelly of society, but are they meant to unsettle readers?
‘No actually, if I’ve written something and when I’ve read it I feel it’s not necessary then I’ll cut it out, even before my editor points it out to me. So much so that I haven’t been asked to cut out anything because of the gore or the sex or the killing or whatever. Because if there’s any darkness in the book it’s necessary, it’s real, it tells the story, it’s central to the story, it’s important for the story, it’s not there for the fun of it.
That said, I’m writing the third book now and the last four chapters are just about killing [ha!]. So I’m not too sure this time, everybody dies in every single one of those four chapters. So yeah… but they are bad people.’
People like labels, but how does Adenle feel about the terms Naija noir and sunshine noir?
‘I like sunshine noir. Sunshine noir appeals to me because I think it was Readers’ Digest that did an article on sunshine noir and my book was up there being compared to the writing of Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie – so for that reason I love sunshine noir. Naija noir is just like drilling down, we’ve got sunshine noir which is just noir anywhere where the sun shines. Unlike Nordic noir where . . . I have a lot of very good Nordic noir writer friends, but let’s face it, they’re writing all these crime stories and is it really true? No, come on, the worst crime that happens in some of those places is where someone shoved the snow off of their driveway onto their neighbour’s driveway. That resulted in the police being called out to measure the snow in the driveway. But in the places where the sun shines we like to say that the shadows are darker where the sun shines brighter. It’s probably bullshit because a shadow is a shadow, but you know. . .’
Adenle lives in London now. What about the shadows of that city? How does it compare to Lagos?
‘London is a city that gave us Jack the Ripper, so there is darkness everywhere. I don’t often quote the Bible but the Bible says that the heart of man is desperately dark. You know I believe that to be true. Naija noir is different because it’s got the culture, it’s got the music, it’s got the Afro-beats, it’s got the parties in Lagos, it’s got a long history that has determined who Nigeria’s people are. So I love Naija noir as well.’
So is there something specific to African noir, perhaps something not relevant in European noir, apart from the obvious flavour of its locations?
‘D’you know I think there’s a difference in every writer’s style, I think that’s what there really is. It’s easily recognisable that a book is set in LA, you know, because the landmarks are there and all of that. Also you can tell when a book is set in Kenya, you know. Crime today, does it matter where the book is set? Well, I think in my books, in the first two in the series, the kind of the crime, the manner of the MO of the killers, means that story can only be told in Lagos. The second book, which has a political bent, like a political thriller, that specific story I think I might be tempted to say is a Nigerian story, but it is a story that can be told anywhere in the world. You know how criminals legalise their criminal enterprise by gaining political authority. I think it’s a story that can be told anywhere.
Now the third book in the series, the one coming out next year, looks at crime that happens before all of us; we all see it. Pentecostal Christians, multi-millionaire jetsetters who cast out demons in church on a daily basis, who give sight to the blind, who raise the dead on telly, but when ebola hit Africa not one of them went to the ebola areas to heal people. So [the story] is centred on Pentecostal Christianity and I think that it is a story that could be told anywhere. In fact, the crime that I tackle in the book coming out next year, tentatively called Unfinished Business for now, that crime is so global, the roots of the crime are so global; the criminal enterprise. We are dealing with the manifestations of it in Nigeria only because that crime indirectly, unintentionally, affects a woman and a woman who is close to Amaka, and we know what Amaka is like when you mess with girls.’
Readers will know that Amaka witnesses all the street violence, the corruption and the treatment of prostitutez and that she fights it. These crimes are the meat of the books, but Adenle loves Nigeria, loves Lagos. How does he square that?
‘You’re right, every Lagosian loves Lagos, every Lagosian will tell you. In fact, every Nigerian loves Nigeria. There is this thing about Nigeria that is hard to fathom, some call it an abusive relationship, you’re in an abusive relationship with your country. We love Nigeria. A lot of us in my generation, we were kids when Nigeria was rightfully wealthy, when things were different, and we’ve kind of seen the transition, and as much as it’s baffling we still have a sense of it can get better. In fact, it’s been codified in the kinds of things we say, we have a saying in Nigeria: ‘E go beta’, pidgin English, it means it’s going to get better. Whatever the situation is, we believe that it’s going to get better, whatever the situation is, it’s an attitude that we all have, we all believe in it. Slowly things are changing, slowly the youth are taking over. I mean, for me, on a global scale, my heroes are Malala [Yousafzai] and Greta [Thunberg] and very soon they are going to influence other people. So the real youth will take over in countries like Nigeria and it’ll become a better place. You’re right, I write about Nigeria with love, the patriotism of every Nigerian. Part of my patriotism is to point out what’s wrong, not to hide it. I am proud to be Nigerian but I’m not proud of the way Nigeria is.’
Lagos is the kernel of the books, but we are introduced to it by Guy Collins, an outsider, in the first novel, Easy Motion Tourist Why? Is Lagos a character in the books?
‘Absolutely, absolutely. Lagos is THE character in the books. The central characters of the entire series are Amaka and Lagos. In the first book, to introduce Lagos, it would have been jarring to talk about Lagos and to tell you what Lagos is and how Lagos feels and how to react to Lagos. But through Guy’s eyes we see Lagos, we feel Lagos, you know. Guy experiences the practice of spraying money, you know when people at a party are throwing wads of dollars around and there’s a sea of money on the ground, fully covering the grass beneath where they’re dancing. Now, if another character had seen that and spoke about it, it wouldn’t have been genuine. If a Nigerian character encountered that, if Amaka had encountered it, she’s used to it, and so it wouldn’t have been noteworthy. But through Guy’s eyes we see it, we see the spectacle of it. Guy comes with his preconceptions about Nigeria and then we can watch through Guy’s changing experiences of Nigeria, of Lagos, we can see Lagos’s own character arc. That is the purpose of Guy in that book.’
I quote something Adenle has said before: gangsters always hold the reins of power. . .
I add: by proxy or directly . . .
‘Yes, well, Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, because it would be denying the facts if we don’t say that Brexit is about money. A lot of people who voted for it voted for real things that are bothering them, losing their jobs, seeing benefits seemingly going to people who never contributed to the NHS, to anything, [people] suddenly coming to the UK and getting, they think, to the front of the queue and getting housing and everything. In a time of economic downturn, when there’s not enough money, you see that and you feel bad about it and a lot of people voted because it was about survival. They really believe that these foreigners are taking our jobs, they’re taking spaces in our schools, they’re taking housing, they really believe it, and that’s what it’s about. It’s not racist, it’s about survival and, unfortunately, when you are in survival mode you’re not thinking, empathy goes out the window, and it’s very easy to become something else.
But then there’s another class of elite who are backing it because they are betting on the economy because it’s going to forward their political careers, and what’s a political career if not a job about making money? Becoming prime minister is like being handed millions of pounds. Once you’re done, you are made for life. So Boris, as much of a clown, as much of a disaster, as much of a psychopathic liar that he, is made for life. He’s done it, he’s going to be in the history books, whether for good or bad. A lot of people are backing Brexit because, I don’t know if you know about the EU rules that are coming in, they are going to make it difficult for you to hide your money somewhere else. It’s crime and we’re watching it.
Same in America, a lot of people have been saying it. I wrote about this many months ago. It seems to me like either the president, or people around him, are playing the stock market, and it’s now become a thing, now people are talking about it. Anytime he tweets it affects the stock value to the tune of billions, so if I know up front what he is going to say, or we agree it up front, we can make a killing, and I’m sure this is going to be investigated. Criminals always get into positions of power, history tells us that. Look at all the countries that have sued their rulers, or convicted them eventually. There’s something about power that attracts criminals. And that’s why I’m always suspicious of anyone who seeks power. I don’t think it’s ever for a good reason.’
Adenle briefly told a story during the panel about how his first book came about. It was fascinating, so I asked him to just expand on that story.
‘So I was… My mum was around from Nigeria, we were at my immediate elder brother’s house, and my younger brother was also there. My mum’s three boys were all there. And, as I said, as usual, every time we’re together we talk about everything. We talk politics, we talk literature, we talk science. In fact, I think on that particular day my mum had been telling us about a potential solution to. . . actually she told us about when she was a lot younger and she’d written a paper and sent it to the government about irrigation in the north and she’d come up with an idea for a huge aqueduct and everything. Well, she sent the paper and, low and behold, forty to fifty years later something similar was being done and until then we didn’t realise that as a twenty something year old, or whatever, she had thought about this and said to the government, why don’t you do this? Those are the kind of conversations we have, we talk religion, we talk about the existence of, or not, of an almighty deity, noting that she was the child of a reverend but we get into those kind of discussions.
And on this particular day we talked about so many things, but we started talking about the naked, mutilated bodies of young females found on a part of a particular express road north of Lagos. It’s not just on that express but that one in particular is notorious for it. And every time these bodies are found, people always assume they are prostitutes. That upset me because my first thought is why do you think so? That’s almost like saying they are responsible for their own deaths. Why? Turns out the police also believe that and for some reason I suspect that affects how well, or not, the case is investigated. Because of the missing body parts, it’s put down to black magic, and in a country where people still believe strongly in what you call, the West calls, black magic, which is more of a bastardisation of the religions of the people, right? A lot of people still worship, follow their traditional religion, which Christianity took over.
Unfortunately, because of Christianity and Islam, the purity of those religions have been spoiled. A lot of the practitioners are now charlatans who are selling a fiction. Such things as magical rituals to become rich, that was never ever part of the religion. It’s still not part of the religions, it’s something that became known due to the labelling of it as black magic, you know? And because people still practice it and a lot of people fall victim to these fraudsters, who claim to be the gatekeepers of these religions, a lot of people turn to them. Some of these practitioners will tell you this is a fact: OK, what you are looking for? Something impossible; it requires human sacrifice. They hope that that’s going to dissuade you. They’ve spent months bleeding you of your money. Finally, when it’s you know, you’ve been promised stuff and it’s not happened, they say: the gods want a blood sacrifice, they want the head of your mother, you know? Tell them something stupid that they can’t do, hoping they can’t do it. Unfortunately, there are people who are so on the edge, who are hungry, hunger is a strong force, who are generationally poor, who want to break out, who are in close proximity to wealth, even though they are poor, who are desperate, who are able do that. And so for that reason once it’s labelled black magic [people say]: I don’t want to touch that. It’s prostitutes. We don’t have to worry about that.
That jarred me, it got me thinking. The discussion with my mum and brothers was about how to protect these women, and we talked about legalisation or at least decriminalisation. But through that conversation I had the idea: What if it’s not what we think it is? What if it’s something else? What if something else is at play here? And that led to the story. I went back that evening and wrote the very first chapter of what became the book as a Facebook note, an exercise in gathering my thoughts, but it just came out as the first chapter of the story. I posted it and then forgot about it, and I woke up the next day and I had dozens of comments, people wanted to know what happened next. And then I wrote a new chapter every night until the initial first draft was done. So the first draft was actually written on Facebook, one chapter a night. I’ve since taken it off Facebook and, yeah, that’s the story.’
So we come to the woman who wanted to do something for the women caught in this nightmare: Amaka. She’s a composite of the kind of people who do this kind of work, of women Adenle knows, but now he realises something else too.
‘Yeah, that’s very fair to say and for a very long time, when I wrote the first book, I used to really believe that all she was, was a composite character of the women I know. She takes the name from one of them. She takes part of her backstory, a specific backstory, from another friend of mine. She knows, I told her. She’s got her looks from another friend. So she’s all these women I know. And I didn’t realise until I was at a crime festival in France. I was on a panel and a lady had asked me, very much like you did, like on the panel today, where the idea for the story came from. And I talked about this conversation with my mum, and how that influenced the story, and how the idea for the book came from that. And then, after the panel, after the book signing, I was outside talking to other people when the same lady came up to me, she looked me in the eye and said: where is your mother in the book? And in that instant it hit me [clicks fingers] because the similarities were always there, were always glaring, you know? Intelligence, the beauty I must say, the choice of work, the almost turning her back on privilege to help people, and the focus on women, it was just my mum. Finally, it all clicked.’
Amaka is an inspirational character, a woman who speaks to power. She has her own way.
‘Yes, she does. It is a Nigerian woman kind of way. Look, you might know the Nigerian musician Fela. It was Fela’s mum. Actually, the independence of Nigeria was down to her and some other people who came to London to argue for it. She was the first woman in Nigeria, maybe even in West Africa, to drive a car. She led a riot, no, a procession, a protest of women, to a king’s palace, where she got him deposed – she changed the law! And she’s not the only one. Unfortunately, it’s an endemic thing that women are written out of history. Luckily some people still are aware of what certain women have done. Amaka is just like those Nigerian women. If you want to get something done, get a Nigerian woman on it and it’ll get done. And, in fact, it’s not just Nigerian women. Right now we’re in a mess globally. Look at America, the men got us into trouble because they couldn’t stomach the thought of a female president, and so we are left with Donald Trump. But who’s getting us out of that trouble? It’s women, [Alexandria] Ocasia-Cortez and the other congresswomen. Women! [Nancy] Pelosi. Women! Over in England as well, Gina Miller, [Joanna] Cherry that brought the case in Scotland, Baroness Hale, the head of the supreme court, it’s women getting us out of trouble. The environment, a young girl. This is my relationship with women. It’s not what men’s books tell us and it’s not about strong women, it’s just women.’
I round off our conversation by lightening the mood. So your books are going to be filmed, will there be a movie?
‘Actually, a TV series, it’s the new format now.’
This is even better news because TV series have more time to explore the intricacies of a novel, to develop themes and complexity properly.
‘Absolutely, according to my producers there is so much in the books, a lot happens in the books, that to condense it into a movie would result in exactly what you said, it would lose a lot. So there’s a chance that a movie will be made somewhere along the line but right now we’re concentrating on doing a TV series, maybe eight hours long, and I quite like it. It’s the Netflix effect.’
I like it too. I’ll be looking out for the series and the third book in the Amaka series next year, ‘tentatively’ called Unfinished Business.
Easy Motion Tourist by Leye Adenle
Cassava Republic Press 9781911115069 pbk Apr 2016
When Trouble Sleeps by Leye Adenle
Cassava Republic Press 9781911115632 pbk Sep 2018