A San Francisco–based international private eye pokes around the exotic dangers of contemporary Africa.
James specializes in missing-person searches and accident investigation in parts of the world where male gumshoes hesitate to tread. Her memoir consists of four adventure narratives with traces of colonialist tensions, in that James’s clients are boorish Europeans or Americans, but her sympathies lie with the Africans. “Detour” resembles a traditional locked-room whodunit: James unravels a coffee-plantation owner’s alleged suicide in Kenya, first suspecting her piggish stepson, then discovering that an African friend aided the suicide to end her suffering from AIDS. “Gorillas and Banana Beer” presents a grim aspect of the continuing Rwandan turmoil as James shepherds a bratty American teen (whose businessman father sent him to Africa for a tough-love awakening) on an unsanctioned attempt to view rare mountain gorillas that goes very wrong when they encounter venal trackers, murderous poachers, and enigmatic Watusi tribesmen. The author indicts obsessive eco-tourism, yet she seems driven by the same reckless impulses. In the exciting if melodramatic “Biera,” James enters a war-torn Mozambique port aboard a rogue South African trader and in the midst of chaos improbably reunites another anguished charge with his long-vanished mother. These African adventures culminate in the grueling “Witchdoctor.” A reckless employer sends James to find Kali, a Turkana woman who got a Western medical education, then vanished while doing research among her tribe, which regarded her as a witchdoctor. Encumbered by a grating British psychologist also looking for Kali, James is nearly killed by attacking tribesmen, then saved by the Turkanas, who themselves persevere under such appalling circumstances that the PI and the psychologist are nearly dead when found by a Kenyan ranger. Overall, James clearly depicts unusual environments and vividly captures the nitty-gritty process of surviving in contemporary Africa. Unfortunately, her engrossing stories are hobbled by turgid, repetitive prose.
Nevertheless, it’s a remarkably unusual career, adequately presented.