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Michele Magwood talks to CM Elliott about her latest novel Sibanda and the Black Sparrowhawk

Published in the Sunday Times

Sibanda and the Black Sparrow Hawk Sibanda and the Black Sparrowhawk
CM Elliott (Jacana Media)

Fans of Alexander McCall Smith will love Scotty Elliott’s Sibanda series, set in Matabeleland in Zimbabwe. They have the same dry humour and warmth as the No1 Ladies’ Detective Agency stories, the same palpable affection for the people and the landscape, and detectives who solve crimes more by hunch and legwork than with forensics and technology.

Elliot doesn’t entirely agree. “His are very gentle, while I’m a bit more brutal,” she says, “and he’s village-based and I’m bush-based.” Indeed, one of the pleasures of the Sibanda series is their setting, with a vivid supporting cast of birds and game. In this, the third in the series, Detective-Inspector Jabulani Sibanda of Gubu investigates after a body is found near the railway track along the border of Hwange National Park. Bizarrely, it has been skinned.

Sibanda believes it is the work of an organised murderer, perhaps a serial killer, and when another body is discovered he sets off with his Falstaffian sidekick Sergeant Thadeus Ncube to hunt him down.

There’s something of the cosy, Agatha Christie tradition of mystery writing here: an array of possible suspects are set up, and one by one the pair must eliminate them.

Elliott also splices in other stories: a disabled girl determined to study law, a bibulous poet bullied by a mean wife, another murder story from the 1800s, when a luxurious train plied the route up to Victoria Falls.

“That idea came when I visited the Railways Museum in Bulawayo,” she says. “It’s wonderful, a bit derelict but full of character.”

Elliott lives just outside Bulawayo, on the edge of the magnificent Matobo park. She and her husband owned a safari business for many years. “When we sold it I was at a bit of a loose end and started writing very long letters to friends. Someone eventually said, why don’t you write your life story? You’ve had such an interesting life. But I didn’t want to write about myself.”

Instead she turned her hand to short stories. When she came up with the character of Sibanda they gelled into the first novel Sibanda and the Rainbird, and when that was well received she followed it with Sibanda and the Death’s Head Moth. She has fans the world over, especially in Germany – “I get lots of fan mail from Germans” – but with a new 40% tax on books in Zimbabwe it’s unlikely she’ll get a large readership there.

Conversation turns to Hwange, where she says the biodiversity has been wiped out by poaching. “It’s become an elephant and lion park. We’d never have believed lion would attack elephants, but now they do. Still, it could come back like that if it were properly managed and conservators are doing the best they can.”

Follow Michele Magwood @michelemagwood

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