Ikenna Okeh 📖 Rogues of the East

A new pathway for Nigerian crime fiction

Daring and imaginative Nigerian novelists have published crime novels every other year since 2010. It has taken a decade for the thrill of novelty to wear off when readers’ saw book covers of crime or detective novels proudly bearing Nigerian authorship. So, Ikenna Okeh’s Rogues of the East (Abibiman Publishing UK, 2023) touched down in the Nigerian 'litverse' with an initial thud that was barely heard. But like dynamite going off underwater, it is creating a great splash. And that splash is what this review analyses. 

Luciano, our main character, is an unpublished Nigerian novelist living in Port-Harcourt. He is dirt-poor and starry eyed; an incredible mix that Nigerian creatives indeed have managed to perfect. When he approaches Chief Ofodile, your typical Nigerian big man – complete with idiosyncrasies and less-than-clean hands – for assistance in publishing his book, he is replied with an offer. The Chief would have him play detective and locate his estranged son and in return would pay him double what he needs to publish his novel. 

It sounds like an easy task, doesn’t it? Of course, it won’t be. This is crime fiction after all. The search quickly degenerates from a simple pick-and-transport to a manhunt involving campus cultists and hit-men, with Luciano being the man that is hunted, alongside Aniete, the Chief’s bastard. 

Most Notable African Books

The direction which the plot goes is obviously one of the most exciting reasons for reading this novel. And that’s popular opinion echoed when Open Country Magazine included the novel in its list of Most Notable African Books of 2023. There are other reasons why Rogues of the East is a refreshing addition to the growing catalogue of Nigerian crime fiction. For one, it is mostly set in the Southeastern part of the country. In this respect it breaks what has become the norm of setting crime fiction stories in Lagos, the country’s metropolis. That norm, since it was established by the earliest Nigerian crime writers, became sort of a style guide for everyone else. It would seem to the European or American reader of Nigerian fiction then that Lagos is the only city worth mentioning as far as Nigeria goes. 

It is good that Okeh shatters the ceiling in that respect and points out to future crime writers that, yes, you can set your story in other places in the country and still come away with something that tapes readers to their chair edges. Okeh does not forget to take the reader into a visceral plunge of the authentic lifestyles of the people that live in Igbo land; both on the university campuses that lie in constant imitation of American TV lifestyles and the ‘rooted’ people in the rural areas like in Aunty Eliza’s village.

In the throes of a plot barrelling our protagonist down a hill, the author still lets us smell the air and immerse ourselves in the atmosphere around us. And dear reader, if plot in crime stories is the meat, a rich setting that superimposes itself over wherever you are reading from is the spices exploding sweetness on your tongue. The attention to detail is simply marvellous. 

…a log fire burned in a thatched shed erected at one side of the backyard close to a fence; it served as the kitchen. It was to this kitchen Aunty Eliza led Luciano… The sweet smell of cooking stockfish assailed Luciano’s nostrils, reminding him of how long he had gone without food all afternoon. 

We could talk all day about the many ways in which this novel beats new paths for itself; even in its use of language. It recognizes that the literary revival breaking out in West Africa has to carry along even those who would get lost in the maze and contours of figurative language – which appears to be the trend in much of contemporary literature. 

So there it is: a pacesetter detective fiction that feels truly Nigerian, truly Igbo. This is the kind of book you should have your ten-year-old read as a way to teach him to fall in love with the world of fiction. And with the way impact works, it would not be surprising to see works by other authors coming out in 2024 and in the near future with similar feel and tone to Okeh’s Rogues of the East.  

‘Rogues of the East’ was published in the UK in March 2023 by Abibiman Publishing. The French edition published as ‘Rebelles Venus de L’est’ by Mera Editions is scheduled to arrive in stores in March 2024.  
Credits: Ebri Kowaki is a Nigerian speculative fiction writer. His works have appeared in Uli Magazine, the Kalahari Review and elsewhere. He spends his free time studying for a mass communication degree at a university in Igbo Land and eating food he did not pay for. 

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