For today’s Big Idea, Tade Thompson takes the immigrant experience, plus the problems that crop up when you tell a little lie at the wrong time, and puts them together for his novel Making Wolf. What do we find out? It’s here, below.
Here’s the thing: if you’ve ever moved from one country to another, going back is always a fraught experience. Migration must be worth it, so when returning to the home country you must show off success either in terms of money or status, preferably both.
So what happens if you’re a lowly store detective, but you have to go home for a funeral? You lie. It’s harmless, right? Usually. But in my story the protagonist Weston pretends to be a homicide detective without attending to his audience. He’s kidnapped by a rebel faction and asked to solve a cold-case, a politically radioactive murder that nobody really wants solved unless the finger points at someone else.
What follows is a weird, violent and frightening journey through a country that has become unfamiliar and alien. The amateur sleuth is a time-honoured tradition in crime fiction, but it is usually voluntary. Weston has to solve a murder to keep himself alive. Then there’s Church, his guide in this journey, a personification of the chaos, who might just be responsible for executing Weston should he fail.
I had to create an alternative time line and an imaginary country because Making Wolf is based on aspects of my own childhood in Nigeria and I don’t want to offend individuals who may be identified. The way memory works tells us that what we think we remember is mostly fiction, so the Nigeria I think I’m remembering may no longer exist, or never have existed in the first place.
If I could not write about these matters, I’d have to make everything up, transforming people and places beyond recognition. My speculative fiction background kicked in and I threw worldbuilding at the problem. I created an alternative time line in which the Nigerian civil war had a different outcome, and I created a new country between Nigeria and Cameroun. I was good to go.
What I do remember accurately is the experience of danger, the pervasive paranoia and the constant negotiation of relationships with powerful people. Conspiracy theories were everywhere. The threat of sexual violence was omnipresent, and if you threw a stone, you’d find a victim.
The ingredients were there for a noir narrative: a disconnected detective, a baffling milieu, an ambiguous relationship with the police force, a femme fatale, a murder, and a conspiracy. Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane were staples of my childhood literary diet, and it was fitting that Making Wolf emerged as first-person and gritty. Weston is not Philip Marlowe or Mike Hammer, but they do share similar experiences and some DNA strands.
Speaking of DNA, the usual CSI techniques are not available in my narrative. It’s a brute-force investigation depending on leg work, brain power and dumb luck.
At its heart, crime fiction is about the social contract. We agree to live in peace with one another, and if someone comes along who won’t play nice, we sanction them. We use crime fiction to tell ourselves that no matter what happens, if someone breaks the contact, we will find the person and break them. This doesn’t happen all the time in real life, but we would like to believe it does, and so we tell ourselves stories about it.
Making Wolf is one of those stories.