Friday, May 06, 2011

Book Review: The Lingala Code

Warren Kiefer
Awards: Edgar
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

The Lingala Code is a bit like a simplified, jazzed-up version of a John Le Carré spy novel, but set in Africa and with an action hero as the main character.

It packs a pretty good punch of excitement, with riots and shootings and spear-throwing Kasai warriors and even a car chase.

The book is set in 1961 in the Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). The Congo at that time had just gained independence from Belgium and was a mass of turmoil, with lots of violence, corruption, poverty, and competing warlords jockeying for power.

The main character is Mike Vernon, a former Air Force pilot and current CIA agent (unofficially) working for the US embassy (officially) in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa).

At the beginning of the book, Vernon’s best friend and CIA/embassy colleague gets shot to death in a supposed home burglary. But Vernon is suspicious of the shooting and sets out to find out what really happened, opening up a whole huge can of dangerous worms. His investigation pulls in some of the warlords and a local terrorist and eventually reveals a Soviet mole in the embassy.

All of which is indeed very exciting, even if I did sometimes get confused which of the corrupt politicians was which and who worked for whom.

Vernon’s activities take him all over the country. I am not sure if Kiefer had actually been to the Congo when he wrote this, but the details of what Vernon sees in all these places sure made it seem real and I very much enjoyed being immersed in the sweaty world of central Africa for a time.

At one point, for example, Vernon has to fly a tiny prop plane several hundred miles over thick, dirty green jungle to meet a contact at a plantation just downriver from Stanleyville (now Kisangani). He describes his flight in detail - how he uses the lake near Inongo and the town of Boende as checkpoints and how the crocodiles look like logs floating in the mustard-yellow river below him.

I also liked Vernon’s description of his ride on the car ferry from Kinshasa to Brazzaville:
“Out on deck there was no breeze, but it was better than inside the car. The view across Stanley Pool to Brazzaville was not exactly inspiring: green and yellow clots of jungle hyacinth floated by like small islands, while the ferryboat engines pounded and shook beneath our feet...

The Pool is swift in places and the boat was old and underpowered - probably the same one Joseph Conrad sailed upriver seventy years ago. To maintain course to the opposite bank it sometimes crabbed at a forty-five-degree angle upstream.”
I said earlier that this book was a little like a simplified Le Carré novel with more action. The problem is that more action is not necessarily to a spy novel’s benefit. Le Carré's best novels are gray, bleak, and filled with the unromantic, unglamorous, often tedious work that is real-life spycraft. That’s what makes them so real and, strangely, so tense and nerve-wracking. The dramatic Lingala Code requires, on the one hand, more suspension of disbelief and, on the other hand, less sympathy for the main character.

So perhaps Mike Vernon is actually more like James Bond than George Smiley. The bad guys in The Lingala Code were pretty much bad and the good guys were pretty much good; there weren’t many subtle characters or surprising twists. (Although when there were twists, to Kiefer’s credit, he didn’t try to dangle the suspense along way past when you’d figured something out.)

As happens all too often in murder mysteries, the love interest falls flat. Vernon’s girlfriend Françoise was hard to take as the totally stereotypical gorgeous and understanding Frenchwoman from Aix-en-Provence. I found her completely unbelievable as a motivating factor.

No comments:

Post a Comment

HTML Tag Instructions

Bold: To make text bold, tag it as follows:

<b>text you want to appear in bold</b>

Italic: To italicize text, tag it as follows:

<i>text you want to appear in italic</i>

Links: To add clickable links, like say to a Wikipedia article on baseball, tag it as follows:

<a href="">text you want to link from</a>

Related Posts with Thumbnails