Messy World, Missing Woman: On Kwei Quartey’s “Last Seen in Lapaz”
By Tara CheesmanMarch 21, 2023
Last Seen in Lapaz by Kwei Quartey
Kwei Quartey spent his childhood there, the son of a Black American mother and a Ghanaian father. As a young man, he studied at Harvard University and became a doctor. He’s now retired from the medical profession and lives and writes in California. He is the author of the Darko Dawson series, about a Ghanaian police inspector, and a series featuring the private investigator Emma Djan.
Last Seen in Lapaz is book three in the Emma Djan series. In it, we find Emma firmly and comfortably established in her role as a private detective. She is a long way from the diffident girl we met in book one, fired from the police force after fighting off her boss’s attempted rape. Her relationship with her boyfriend, Courage, has progressed to the stage where they spend nights at each other’s apartments. Her mother, who has been staying with Emma on an extended visit, is more approving than in previous books. Overall, our heroine is in a good place—ready to provide a steady, reassuring (if somewhat unobtrusive) presence in what will be a deeply unsettling case.
When an old friend of Yemo Sowah, Sowah Agency’s owner and Emma’s boss, shows up at the office unannounced, it becomes apparent he’s not there for a catch-up. His 18-year-old daughter Ngozi is missing. She disappeared from the family home in Nigeria six weeks before, and the family suspects that she ran away with (or was taken by) her Nigerian Ghanaian boyfriend—a young man named Femi. Her father hires Sowah Agency to find her. Their only lead is a phone call from an old family acquaintance who claims to have recently spotted Ngozi in Lapaz.
Djan and her co-worker Jojo quickly discover, thanks to a tip from Emma’s boyfriend, that Femi has been murdered. They reach out to the Criminal Investigation Department homicide detective in charge, Detective Inspector Boateng, with whom the agency has a friendly relationship. Suspecting a link between Ngozi’s disappearance and Femi’s murder, Djan sets herself to solve both mysteries.
Quartey’s plots are expansive, free-ranging, and packed with characters to manipulate. Last Seen in Lapaz lists 39 in its cast of characters, which still feels insufficient since, outside of the Sowah Agency, everyone we’re introduced to has a part to play as a potential suspect or source. Quartey moves between these men and women, using a close, third-person narrator to reveal most, but not all, of their secrets. It is a complicated network of connections, made more twisty by the writer’s habit of jumping back and forth in time.
Femi, it turns out, was no innocent victim. In part two (there are eight parts in all), Quartey shows us events from Femi’s point of view, dating from before he even met Ngozi. After an eight-year stint in prison, he goes into business with his childhood friend, Cliffy. Calling themselves travel agents, they are human traffickers, preying upon people with few resources who were hoping for better lives. Unable to afford false papers and seats on commercial flights to Europe, Femi and Cliffy’s clientele must undertake the dangerous journey through Niger and Libya on foot. The ones who survive the desert end up in internment camps and brothels. The lucky few are caught and sent home. Femi convinces an engaged couple, Bisola and Kehinde, to trust him. They become his first clients. Eventually, we learn their heartbreaking story, revealing what kind of creature Femi is.
Rather than focusing solely on the victims, Quartey explores the inner lives of the traffickers, the sex workers and brothel owners, the angels and devils. We’re shown what the world looks like from the point of view of not only Femi and Ngozi but also Femi’s friend Cliffy; a young woman named Diamond; and Awuni and Janet, the owners of the White House Hotel, who hire Femi to work for them. All get to share their stories via the same close third-person narrator. Good and evil are clearly delineated but not overly simplified. As a result, there’s an all-encompassing quality to how the crime is presented.
There is also a fair amount of research on display, though not in a way that overshadows the narrative. Quartey includes a map of the route traveled by West African migrants and a brief introduction explaining that he interviewed “West African sex workers and migrant returnees” as part of his preparation. Last Seen in Lapaz is dedicated to “all migrants, dead or alive, who have been through this hell.” This type of dedication appears in some form in all the Emma Djan books. The Missing American (2020) is dedicated to the late Ghanaian investigative journalist Ahmed Hussein-Suale, who was shot and killed after reporting on corruption in African football. A central character of that novel, a journalist named Sana Sana, is a thinly disguised version of Hussein-Suale. He investigates online scammers, known as “Sakawa boys,” with the help of Emma’s half-brother, and he saves Emma’s life. The dedication to Sleep Well, My Lady (2021), the second in the series, reads, “In memory of Careen Chepchumba[.] Let justice be done though the heavens fall.” Chepchumba, a 26-year-old Kenyan woman whose murder remains unsolved, was dating a prominent television broadcaster and financially supporting his lavish lifestyle, much like the victim in Sleep Well, My Lady.
You could say that the plots of the Emma Djan novels are “ripped from the headlines.” Quartey definitely drifts toward subjects tied to current events: Sakawa boys, the fashion and media industries, life behind the walls of luxurious gated communities, and the world of human trafficking—not entirely original as a concept, except that the headlines Quartey chooses are from African news sites. A large portion of his audience has probably never heard of the real-life cases and people he draws from, so the dedications are there to inform the uninformed. Quartey seems determined to introduce readers to his Accra, which may not be entirely the real Accra (was Raymond Chandler’s City of Angels ever the real Los Angeles?). It’s a refreshing change from the typical cities that mystery readers, even the adventurous ones, encounter again and again. I don’t need to list them.
Instead, Quartey’s pages are peppered with words from different African languages and contain maps, glossaries, and pronunciation guides. His Accra is a little corrupt and a lot chaotic, its streets loud and bustling, filled with solid communities and seedy corners. All the books in the series are engaging, escapist, and (should I even admit it?) fun.
It’s a delicate balance, even in this period of true-crime mania, transforming real tales of human suffering into works meant to entertain while remaining respectful of the victims. Quartey, so far, hasn’t misstepped. The sexual violence and brutality he depicts in Last Seen in Lapaz are not characteristic of the series and are entirely appropriate to the subject matter. The solutions he puts forward, the whodunits and whys, aren’t over the top. Particularly in Last Seen in Lapaz, the parallel mysteries of the murder and the missing girl are resolved in unusual ways. Neither resolution is entirely satisfying, but I like them better because of it. Why should we expect neatness in a messy world?
Emma Djan, while being the pivot point around which everything revolves, is a member of what is increasingly becoming an ensemble cast. I’d hoped, in vain, to reencounter characters from the previous books—Sana Sana, Emma’s half-brother, and more of Emma’s Sowah Agency co-workers. But as consolation, I met new ones who I look forward to seeing more of in the future—like DI Boateng, who is affectionately called “Diboat” behind his back. Quartey has created a real sense of community in the series, the kind of community found only in big cities and very small towns—where everyone is connected, if with varying degrees of separation. And in this way, Accra becomes more familiar and beloved with each installment. Because, as every reader knows, a city is defined not strictly by its geography and topography but by the people who pulse through its streets like red blood cells waiting to be spilled.
Tara Cheesman is a freelance book critic, National Book Critics Circle member, and 2018–19 Best Translated Book Award fiction judge. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, CrimeReads, Guernica, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Rumpus, and other online publications.
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