What We Expected Was All Wrong

Aug 31, 2022 | 2022 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze

by Michael Stanley

Michael Stanley is actually two authors: Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. We were both born in South Africa and are both retired academics. The eighth mystery, A Deadly Covenant, of our Detective Kubu series, set in Botswana, is about to be released in North America. It comes out later in the rest of the world.

After our first book, A Carrion Death, was published in 2008, we expected to be asked lots of questions about Africa, in general, and Botswana, in particular. In our experience, Africa is not a common destination for Americans so we anticipated a lot of curiosity about it.

We expected, for example, to share how much bigger Africa is than it appears on maps. (Thank Mercator for that.) Here’s a map of Africa showing its size relative to countries you know.

We thought we’d get questions about Botswana: how big it was, what its population was, and what sort of government it had. And we thought we’d be asked about the wildlife.

But we were wrong.

The question we are asked most often at book events by both authors and readers is, “How can two people write fiction together?”

At first, we were puzzled by the question because both of us, in our professional lives as university professors, had been collaborators. Stanley had co-authored multiple non-fiction books and Michael many academic papers. So, when we decided to write our first mystery, A Carrion Death, we never even discussed whether it was a good idea. It seemed the natural thing to do. It was only later that we realized that it was quite uncommon.

So, why do we like collaboration so much?

First, we have the benefit of having a totally involved person to brainstorm with, to bounce ideas off, and to give truly critical feedback. A single writer has only herself or himself to interact with. How depressing! How lonely! Second, we have the benefit of having someone to share a glass of wine with while discussing the intricacies of plot or character – a solo writer can’t do that because no one else would be totally involved.

Unlike some collaborations where responsibilities are split up, we both do everything. We brainstorm together, follow up on research, travel to little known parts of Botswana, write, and edit.

Our process is that one of us does the first draft of a piece. Sometimes that is part of a chapter; other times a chapter or two. He then sends it by email to the other, who edits it, makes suggestions, and comments on it. He then sends it back. The originator responds, accepting some suggestions and rejecting others. The interchange may also spark some new ideas. Then the piece goes back and forth in that way, as many as twenty times or more.

What we have both learned from this is that there is no one, perfect way to write something, much as each of us likes to believe we have done just that. It turns out that words, sentences, and even plots are flexible.

Eventually the piece is not written by Michael or by Stanley, but rather by some gestalt, called Michael Stanley, who sits in cyberspace somewhere between the United States and South Africa. Readers tell us the product is seamless; our friends tell us they can identify who wrote what, but they are wrong about half the time!

There are many benefits to collaboration. We can brainstorm plot and character, which we think results in a more cohesive final product. When one of us flags, the other is there to nag and take up the slack. Best of all we get immediate and interested feedback on anything we write.

However, there are some caveats. You must be willing to take harsh criticism, knowing that it’s directed at the product rather than the person and that the only aim is to improve the work. There must be trust and an ability to see the other person’s point of view. It helps if you have similar writing styles. And it definitely takes longer than writing alone. But all that is outweighed by the biggest advantage: it is great fun! And, after all, almost all people who write fiction do it for the enjoyment.

So now, when we are asked “How can two people write fiction together?”, we respond that this is the wrong question! A better question is “How can a person write alone?”

A Deadly Covenant

It is set in the evocative Okavango Delta in Northern Botswana, with its lush vegetation, sweeping waterways, abundant wildlife, and compelling African cultural heritage.

While digging a trench for a new water project, a backhoe operator unearths the skeleton of a long dead Bushman. Kubu and Scottish pathologist, Ian MacGregor, are sent to sort out the formalities, but the situation rapidly gets out of hand. MacGregor discovers eight more skeletons—a massacre of Bushmen including women and children. However, the locals deny any knowledge of the event.

When an elder of the village is murdered at his home, the local police believe it was the result of a robbery gone wrong. Kubu thinks otherwise. So does an elderly woman who believes it was the work of Mami Wata, a powerful river spirit. When she dies in an apparent crocodile attack, suspicions rise.
Things become still more complicated when a mysterious Bushman appears at the massacre site, collapses, then disappears again, but seems connected to the murders in some way.

Kubu’s boss, Assistant Superintendent Mabaku, joins them as accusations of corruption are leveled at the water project, and international anger over the massacre of the Bushman families builds. But how do the recent murders link to the dead Bushmen? As they investigate, they uncover a deadly covenant made many years before by an unknown group, and they begin to fear that their own lives may be in danger.

Recommended African mysteries

Before signing off, we’d like to leave you with some African destinations to savor through mysteries. The first two are historic; the rest contemporary.

Elspeth Huxley’s murder mysteries, written in the 1930s, set in East Africa. Winner of the UK’s CWA Gold Dagger. She is best known for The Flame Trees of Thika.

James McClure’s wonderful Kramer and Zondi series set in South Africa during the apartheid era. His books were banned in South Africa because they highlighted the absurdity of apartheid. Also a winner of the CWA Gold Dagger.

Kwei Quartey sets his books in his birthplace of Ghana. He was shortlisted for an Edgar and won a Shamus.

Alexander McCall Smith put Botswana on the literary map with The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. He’s certainly the most successful and prolific writer of African crime fiction.

Oyinkan Braithwaite is a Nigerian writer. Her My Sister the Serial Killer won an Anthony, the 2019 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Best Mystery/Thriller, as well as many other awards.

Leye Adenle is another Nigerian writer. Easy Motion Tourist won the Prix Marianne.

Deon Meyer is the doyen of South African crime writers with his books published in over forty countries.

And, of course, ourselves, Michael Stanley, Edgar finalist, International Thriller Writers finalist, and winner of the Barry Award.

Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & mystery short stories in our mystery section. And join our mystery Facebook group to keep up with everything mystery we post, and have a chance at some extra giveaways. Also listen to our new mystery podcast where mystery short stories and first chapters are read by actors! They are also available on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, and Spotify. A new episode went up last week.

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Michael Stanley is the pen name of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip. The two are both South Africans and retired academics, Michael a mathematician and Stanley an educational psychologist. Michael lives in Knysna on the South African south coast, and Stanley splits his time between Minneapolis, Denmark, and Cape Town. Their award-winning mysteries, featuring Detective Kubu, are set in Botswana. Death of the Mantis was an Edgar finalist and Deadly Harvest an International Thriller Writers award finalist. The seventh Detective Kubu mystery, Facets of Death, was released in January 2020 by Poisoned Pen Press. The eighth mystery, A Deadly Covenant, will be published in September 2022.
A stand-alone thriller, Shoot the Bastard, featuring investigative journalist, Crystal Nguyen, was published in June 2019 by Poisoned Pen Press. Outside North America, Orenda Books published it as Dead of Night. They have written and published many short stories and have edited an anthology of short stories set in hot places called Sunshine Noir.
Website: www.michaelstanleybooks.com
Twitter: @detectivekubu
Instagram: @michaelstanleybooks
Facebook: www.facebook.com/michaelstanleybooks

Disclosure: This post contains links to an affiliate program, for which we receive a few cents if you make purchases. KRL also receives free copies of most of the books that it reviews, which are provided in exchange for an honest review of the book.


  1. Thank you for allowing us to be part of Kings River Life!

  2. The new novel sounds like a winner. It’s going on the already-too-long TBR list. I’ve read others in the series, Deon Myer is a favorite, I’ve read others in your series, also Huxley, Smith and Quartey. Now I need to try some of the others you mention, especially James McClure. Thanks for the recommendations.

    • John: James McClure is a wonderful writer. He was an itch that the apartheid government couldn’t reach, so they banned his books. And he left the country.

    • John, it is a fundamental law of physics that TBR piles can never get shorter! We think you’ll enjoy McClure a lot.


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