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Author Talk: June 13, 2019

Michael Stanley is a pseudonym for the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. Their Detective Kubu series, the seventh installment of which releases in January 2020, features the humble and intrepid police investigator taking on criminal and corruption cases. In this interview, Michael and Stanley talk about SHOOT THE BASTARDS, which kicks off a brand new series starring investigative journalist Crystal Nguyen. They discuss their inspiration for this thriller that revolves around rhino poaching and rhino-horn smuggling in Africa, along with some of the research challenges they faced while writing it.

Question: Writing partnerships are rather rare in the mystery field. How and when did you two old friends decide to enter the game with your Detective Kubu series?

Michael Stanley: On a safari in Botswana in the 1980s, we watched a pack of hyenas hunt and kill a wildebeest. They devoured it, flesh and bone, in a few hours. We immediately realized this was a wonderful premise for a murder mystery. Leave the corpse out for hyenas --- no body, no case.

We sat on the idea for about 15 years, frequently telling each other that we should do something more than just talk about it. So, in 2003, we decided to see if we could turn the premise into a novel. At that stage, we were just writing for our own enjoyment.

It took three years to complete, and when it was finished, we quite liked it. So we decided to see if we could find a publisher. After the usual difficulties of finding an agent, we succeeded in persuading a New York agent to represent us. Within a month, she had sold a two-book contract to HarperCollins.

Q: Were the Detective Kubu books immediately made available in the States? If not, when did that happen?

MS: We were very fortunate to start our fiction-writing career with a two-book contract from HarperCollins. A CARRION DEATH was published in 2008, followed by THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU. All six installments of the Detective Kubu series have debuted in the USA, as will the seventh, FACETS OF DEATH, in January, with Poisoned Pen Press.

Q: You introduce a new protagonist and a new setting with SHOOT THE BASTARDS, even though your Detective Kubu series, set in Botswana, was a winner of the Barry Award and a finalist for several others. Why did you want to employ this particular lead character to tell the poaching story?

MS: Both of us are very keen lovers of the African bush. So the horrendous slaughter of rhinos for their horns means a great deal to us. South Africa alone has been losing about 1,000 rhinos a year, with a world population of only 25,000. All of our books have a contemporary backstory, and we felt this was a particularly fascinating one given that nobody has been able to stem the tide of poaching.

Relatively speaking, Botswana has few rhinos, so having Detective Kubu go after poachers was an unlikely scenario. We felt that South Africa was the natural setting for a book with a rhino backstory. We also wanted to avoid a South African protagonist because everyone in South Africa has strong, preconceived ideas about rhino poaching and how it can be solved. We wanted someone who was naïve, who could view the situation with fresh eyes. Hence an outsider, an American. Since Vietnam is the largest consumer of rhino horn, we thought it was a good idea to have our protagonist have some connection to that country. Hence, an American of Vietnamese descent whose family were refugees after the war.

We were also interested in writing a female protagonist, so we ended up with Crystal Nguyen, an investigative reporter for a Duluth TV station and a freelance writer on environmental affairs. She ends up in South Africa, commissioned by National Geographic to complete a story started by a close friend of hers who has gone missing while investigating rhino-horn smuggling.

Q: What were some of the research challenges you faced while writing SHOOT THE BASTARDS?

MS: Rhino poaching and the rhino-horn smuggling are complex issues with people arguing forcefully for and against the legalization of rhino-horn sales. At the same time, poachers and game rangers are being killed --- not to mention the rhinos.

Our research covered what was happening at the international level through a Swiss-based organization called CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), which seeks a coordinated international approach to protecting flora and fauna. We also spoke to people who are on the ground on the frontline against poachers. Of course, we also read everything we could get our hands on, both scientific and popular. In fact, Michael was involved in some mathematical modelling predicting where the rhino population was likely to go.

In some ways, the research was made more difficult, because the laws kept changing and continue to do so. As with so many similar topics, the underlying human motivation is greed. A mature rhino horn fetches over US$400,000 --- far more valuable than gold. As writers, we had to understand why the demand for rhino horn is so great, particularly when there is no evidence that ingesting rhino horn has any physiological impact. We also had to understand why so many people were willing to put their lives on the line to get it. And where were the authorities when all of this was happening in front of their noses?

Q: Before the two of you officially debuted as Michael Stanley, who were some of the crime writers who had the greatest influence on each of you?

Michael: John le Carré, P.D. James, Tony Hillerman

Stanley: The Hardy Boys, Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, P.D. James

Q: Following this book’s dramatization of the poaching issue in Africa, what topic might you investigate for the next book in the series?

MS: Since Crystal is from Minnesota and works in Northern Minnesota, she may next tackle the issue of endangered gray wolves.