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June 20, 2019

Time for a Change; Time for a Challenge


Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip, collectively known as Michael Stanley, have been writing the Detective Kubu mysteries set in Botswana for the past 15 years. About five years ago, they decided to take a break from their long-running series to pen a stand-alone thriller that focuses on rhino poaching and rhino-horn smuggling in Africa. In this fascinating essay, Michael and Stanley talk about their research for the book, titled SHOOT THE BASTARDS, and the numerous challenges they faced as they were getting to know their protagonist, investigative journalist Crystal Nguyen.

For the past 15 years, we’ve been writing the Detective Kubu series set in Botswana. David Bengu, universally known as Kubu, is an assistant superintendent working for the Botswana Police Services in the Criminal Investigation Department. So the books are all police procedurals.

The backstory of each book is a contemporary societal issue: blood diamonds (A CARRION DEATH), the aftermath of the Rhodesian civil war (THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU), the tragic persecution of the Bushman (Khoi-San) peoples (DEATH OF THE MANTIS), muti murders --- the murder of someone for body parts to use in magic potions (DEADLY HARVEST), the presence of the Chinese in Africa (A DEATH IN THE FAMILY), and bio-piracy, which is the theft of indigenous knowledge and plants (DYING TO LIVE). All of these are big issues, spanning countries and societies, but their greatest impact is felt by individuals and families, which is what the stories are about.

About five years ago, we decided to interrupt the Kubu series with a stand-alone thriller. We never expected that it would challenge us in so many different ways.

The first step was to establish the backstory. We knew we still wanted one that was large-scale and relevant, and we found a perfect one on our doorstep.

Over the last 10 years, there has been an explosion of poaching of wildlife in Africa. It’s decimated the elephant population north of the Zambezi, wiped out several rhino subspecies, and is threatening to do the same with all of Africa’s rhinos.

An international organization, CITES, is tasked with controlling trade in rare wildlife and plant products --- 35,000 of them! For the most endangered, international trade is banned altogether.

That has been the case with rhino horn for the last 40 years. During the earlier years of the ban, the rhino population increased, and rhinos were reintroduced into areas from which they had long been missing. There was optimism that the tide had been turned. Today the situation is totally different. Out of a total population of around 25,000 worldwide, about 1,000 rhinos are being poached annually. So what has caused the change? What has caused the recent upswing of demand that has led to a situation where rhino horn, ounce for ounce, is more valuable than gold?

Rhino horn has been used for many things in the past. It’s been a traditional ingredient of Chinese herbal medicines; it was prized by young Yemeni men for dagger handles; and its suggestive shape encouraged its use as an aphrodisiac. Recently, its use in medicines has skyrocketed, perhaps dating to a Taiwanese politician famously claiming that it had cured him of cancer. Particularly in Vietnam, it’s also become a yuppie status symbol --- powdered horn is snorted like cocaine and ingested as an aphrodisiac. (These days, wily merchants lace the powder --- often from buffaloes rather than rhinos --- with Viagra or equivalents.)

So rhino poaching and rhino-horn smuggling check all the boxes for sophisticated and violent criminal activity. Rhino horn is wildly expensive, rare, hard to obtain and illegal to trade. And most of the world’s remaining rhinos live in South Africa, on our doorstep. A perfect backstory.

What makes the backstory even better is that things are often not what they seem. For example, it is not surprising that the poachers are reviled. When they are caught, people often say “Shoot the Bastards!” --- hence the title of our book. However, the poachers are usually from very poor rural areas, where jobs are scarce and pay low. When they are offered a staggering amount of money to shoot a rhino, cut off its horn, and deliver it to the smugglers, they see it as a way to provide for their families. They are willing to risk death to keep food on the table. Rather than being the villains that they are usually portrayed as, we saw the poachers as both perpetrators and victims.

The smugglers take the horn across the border into neighboring Mozambique, and then it’s smuggled by sea to Vietnam. From there it travels via underground networks to outlets, where it is sold quite openly despite the fact that it is supposedly illegal to do so. The poacher may earn $10,000 to kill a rhino and harvest the horn. The street value of a horn in Vietnam can be as much as $450,000. Given the amount of money involved, anyone trying to impede the flow is dealt with very violently.

What makes the trade so bizarre is that rhino horn is keratin, like your fingernails. Ingesting it in any way has no physiological effect on the human body. It is all in the mind, in the perception, in the status.

People read thrillers to be entertained, to relate to the characters, and to be intrigued by their stories. So the context needs to be in the background, influencing characters’ motivations and behaviors. The complexity of the backstory has to come out through people’s actions, not through lecturing or preaching. In the rhino trade, with so much money involved, people’s motivations are fluid and often opaque. It is difficult to know who to trust. It is a compelling context for a thriller!

With the backstory found, we then needed to establish our protagonist.

We decided early on that we wanted a strong female character. She could not be South African, because we wanted her to be new to the world of rhino-poaching, so she could explore the issues with an open mind, albeit a naïve one.

We eventually decided that she was an American of Vietnamese descent --- Crystal Nguyen. Born in Vietnam, she came to Minnesota as a refugee baby and grew up between two worlds --- an American being raised in a Vietnamese family. Her father, who wants her to be an obsequious Vietnamese girl, eventually throws her out of the home because she doesn’t conform to his wishes. She becomes something of a loner, enjoying cross-country skiing, and falling in love with nature and its creatures. And, of course, it’s very useful to have a protagonist who is investigating a trade with its roots in Vietnam to be able to speak Vietnamese.

When we talked about her, we liked our creation more and more. We were excited to start writing.

If changing genres and the gender of our protagonist wasn’t difficult enough, we also decided to write in the first person present, so Crystal’s thoughts, reactions and emotions would be immediately apparent to the reader.

This is where the challenges started. Progress was good until we reached about 20,000 words. Then we hit a brick wall. We didn’t know how to move forward. So we set the book aside and worked on another Kubu book.

Then we started again, this time in first person past. With the same result. At 20,000 we stalled again. We tried third person --- the brick wall again.

Back to Kubu.

At this stage we decided that the reason for our problems was that we really didn’t know who Crystal was, that we didn’t understand her character or her motivations. So Stanley wrote what ended up as a 60,000-word novella about her in the context of her Duluth job. When that was finished, we felt we knew her well enough to get back to the thriller. This time, again in first person present, all went well and we finished the whole story. And we were so happy.

The book starts when Crystal’s close friend, Michael, who writes for National Geographic, has disappeared on an assignment to Africa to report on the rhino poaching and horn smuggling. No one seems to know what has happened to him, and she is desperate to find out. Eventually, she persuades National Geographic to send her to South Africa to investigate and, if necessary, finish Michael’s article. Her concern for the rhinos and their plight is very strong, but is a secondary motivation, at least initially.

When she arrives in South Africa, Crys is immediately out of her comfort zone. She’s in a country she doesn’t know, investigating an issue she doesn’t understand. And when it comes to finding Michael, she doesn’t really know where to start.

What’s worse is that she doesn’t know who to trust.

It’s a cliché that the protagonist needs to change during a novel, and Crys is forced to do so at a number of levels. Her understanding and empathy develop as she realizes that most things in the rhino-poaching world are not what they seem. She is forced to acknowledge her naïvety as it constantly gets her into trouble, and she becomes committed to making a difference rather than just writing a story. And always she is trying to find Michael. Eventually, she does, but in an unexpected and unwelcome way.

So SHOOT THE BASTARDS is really Crys’ story. But it’s the dynamics of the poaching and the reality of Africa that make it happen.

However, what you read in SHOOT THE BASTARDS is not the story we sent to our British editor. After sending it in, we received strong feedback that our story wasn’t up to our normal standards --- not what we wanted to hear. But the editor was right, and we made significant changes. With the same result.

Eventually we decided that the underlying problem was that the Crys who existed in Michael’s head was subtly different from the Crys in Stanley’s head, that two people writing in the first person wasn’t working. So we rewrote the whole book in the third person. And that is the story you will find in SHOOT THE BASTARDS. And a much better story it is.

We’ve just finished the next Kubu story, FACETS OF DEATH, about a massive diamond heist from the world’s richest diamond mine, which is in Botswana. Compared to writing SHOOT THE BASTARDS, it was a stroll in the park, which we much appreciated. Do we miss the challenges of writing our thriller? We probably do.