Kenneth Ryeland will not be straitjacketed into a single genre or style. His first book "The Up-Country Man" is an autobiography that reads like a thriller. His second "Tribal Gathering" is a series of varied short stories outlining life in postcolonial West Africa which echoed the work of authors such as Orwell, Graham Greene, Chinua Achebi or Cyprian Ekwensi.... and Ryeland can certainly hold his own in the company of the above-mentioned.
In his full-length novel "The Last Bature" Ryeland starts us off in familiar Graham Greene territory. His Police Inspector, Mike Stevens, is a very believable "last white man standing" in a force that has been rapidly Africanised after independence. Like Obi Okonkwo in "No Longer Ease" or Greene's Scobie in "The Heart of the Matter" Mike Stevens is a decent man in a world dominated by corruption. But unlike the pair just mentioned, Stevens never falls into the trap of allowing himself to be open to bribery.
As the story develops, we are drawn into the intrigue that Stevens is investigating. The heart of the story is almost prophetic as it turns on the shady involvement of Asian powers in Africa. This was indeed happening in West Africa at the time the book is set, but such presence has since become massive, indeed it has almost converted the continent into the backdrop for a covert Cold War between Asian and Western interests today.
Along the way, we meet some fascinating minor characters such as Stevens' sidekick Bello or the slimy Major Etuk. Ryeland is good on minor characters and at his strongest in depicting events that carry the story along, as well as accompanying reflections in dialogue, or the little sketches which perfectly illustrate Stevens' life as a policeman, or the conditions the locals have to put up with. The author is at his weakest, however, when the dialogue is merely explanatory with characters filling in plot details and political background in unlikely conversations (such as that involving the Soviet Ambassador).
There is a powerful sub-thread running through the book about plans for a coup d'etat and counter coups as tribal tensions among the army lead to powerful elements from each tribe planning to take over the government. The power crazy cynicism of such characters is perfectly evoked by Brigadier Nissi Ofiung, a well-crafted super villain, who is willing to carry out the annihilation of the capital city and the millions living there if it means he can take power from his brother, the current head of state.
At some point in the novel the writer starts to leave behind Graham Greene territory and opt for a more sensationalist "Hollywood" line. Ryeland handles this very well, but personally I find it hard to maintain my willing suspension of disbelief when characters are involved in incidents, which, in reality, they would surely have turned over to the relevant authorities. Ryeland does his best to justify Mike Stevens being involved at every stage of the denouement of the book, but as the story takes on the characteristics of an action movie, I found myself visualising the central protagonist as Claude Van Damme, rather than as a kind of tragic-heroic Peter Postlethwaite figure. This I felt was to the detriment of the book, but perhaps fans of Dan Brown and Hollywood action movies would disagree with me.
That said, the resulting thriller is a real page-turner that has you wanting to read just another few pages to see what happens next and the climax is generally satisfying. Though there is a final chapter postscript to the story which attempts to cram in too much information about what happened next to our protagonist and the country he had dedicated most of his life to serving.
Altogether, Ryeland has written another good book about life in post-colonial Africa, with the added attraction of a James Bond style thriller plot.