Lightseekers by Femi Kayode

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Here’s an interesting premise for a thriller: three students are brutally attacked and lynched by a mob in the Nigerian university town of Okriki. Everybody knows who did it – the whole thing was captured on social media – but nobody knows why. Dr Philip Taiwo, a psychologist and expert on the behaviour of crowds, is called in to investigate by the father of one of the victims, who doesn’t trust the police or the courts to uncover the truth and deliver the justice he wants to see.

Are you intrigued yet? That’s only the beginning. Nigerian writer Femi Kayode gives us a noir-ish crime thriller with a femme fatale; drug dealers; student fraternities turned into dangerous cults; international mercenaries and assassins; corrupt institutions from local police to the military; conspiracy theories and toxic social media; post-traumatic stress disorder; queer-bashing; entrenched inequality; religious, ethnic and inter-generational conflict; and the long shadow of Nigeria’s violent post-colonial history. The deeply sympathetic detective has to unpick all of this and navigate his way through an action-packed plot in which nobody is what they first appear.

Lightseekers is clearly aimed at an international audience who know next to nothing about Nigeria, and Dr Philip Taiwo (perhaps a homage to Philip Marlowe?), who has just returned from a long period in America, provides the perfect fish out of water guide. He gives the reader just enough information about the complexities of his homeland, without overwhelming or boring us. One of the great things about crime fiction is that it lets readers explore all the horrible aspects of society, without being boring or preachy. Lightseekers presents a diverse and interesting picture of Nigeria, from the educated middles classes to the private-jet owning, 5-star hotel visiting super rich, to villagers who respect their chiefs, don’t have running water or electricity, and rent out rooms to students.

I enjoyed some of the scenes that really brought this world to life. I was fascinated to read about the chaos at Port Harcourt airport, “a structure that someone must have had the intention of completing but didn’t get round to,” and the fabulously glamorous lawyer Salome, who uses a ‘queue boy’ to wait in line for her for her. There’s also a vivid and memorable scene where Dr Taiwo goes to a ‘buka,’ student canteen for goat stew and pounded yam. However, I felt that there weren’t quite enough descriptions like this in the book. The characters are all very well described, but I wanted a little more sensory detail about the landscapes, the townscapes and the interiors, to help me visualise these places and bring the story to life.

Dr Taiwo is an enlightened, educated and sensitive man, who is pained by the corruption he sees everywhere around him. He’s a typical academic type – physically awkward and unused to violence – so he quickly gets out of his depth, sucked into the dangerous vortex swirling around him. Luckily he has been supplied with a suspiciously handy ‘driver,’ named Chika, to supply this deficiency. The awkward buddy-act between the two very different men is a real delight. Dr Taiwo is a family man married to a law professor. He’s currently having some marital issues, but he has a sweet relationship with his children. During the course of his investigations Dr Taiwo also uncovers some unsettling information about his father’s past, and their complex and evolving relationship, mirrored in several other father-son relationships throughout the novel, are moving and sensitively handled. Dr Taiwo is given several opportunities to use his counselling skills to diffuse tensions and help grief-stricken or traumatised characters through difficult situations. This novel is planned as the first of a series, and it’s great that Kayode gives us a hero is feels like a thoroughly good man, not the usual tough-guy detective at all. Dr Taiwo provides a lovely moral centre to the book, while also being normal and flawed enough to relate to.

Kayode trained as a clinical psychologist before working in advertising and scriptwriting, something he clearly draws on for Dr Taiwo’s insights. So I found it a bit disappointing that there wasn’t more psychology, in relation to unravelling the crime and understanding the behaviours of the people involved. I don’t want to give too many spoilers, but there is also a startlingly gothic horror quality to some of the scenes giving an insight into mental illness, that felt out of keeping with the tone of the rest of the novel. I wondered if that was really realistic, or just a convenient way to portray a villain? A little more of Dr Taiwo’s specialist knowledge in this area might have helped clear this up.

I called Lightseekers a ‘noir’ thriller, but although there are hints of noir, Kayode never lets his novel sink into a depressing morass of despair at the inherent evil of human nature, or the wicked and untouchable establishment. Okriki isn’t Chinatown. But Lightseekers isn’t a cosy mystery either, where justice is meted out to one or two perpetrators and society reverts back to business as usual, to everyone’s satisfaction. Instead, Kayode instead offers us a picture of a fractured and fragile society, one in which nobody wants to return to business as usual, but in which many people are actively working, with hope and persistence, to right the wrongs of the past and build a better future. It’s realistic, it doesn’t downplay the difficulties involved, but it offers a satisfying conclusion to the mystery, and a ray of light in the darkness.

Lightseekers is published by Bloomsbury Raven and is available here.

Femi Kayode

Kayode, formerly a University of East Anglia creative writing student, won the £3,000 Little, Brown prize in October with judges paying tribute to Lightseekers, described as “shocking and emotional”. The author described it at the time as “a kind of love letter to my home country, Nigeria”.

Review by Kate Tyte

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