TOP TEN AFRICAN ADVENTURES
Last year, The Washington Post ran an article saying that thrillers “set in Africa are hot.” There have been a slew of them recently, including my own, The Afrika Reich (Henry Holt, 2013), which was an action-packed romp set in an Africa conquered by the Nazis. But the thrills of African adventure have a long heritage, stretching back to the age of Victorian exploration. A word of caution: some of the books on the list below have racial attitudes that make for uncomfortable reading nowadays, and nearly all of them are by white Westerners. Of course, Africa has many fine black writers, but they have not been drawn to this genre. Here’s my choice of ten favorite titles:
King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard (1885) – Pinning down the first African adventure is a tricky business. Jules Verne’s Five Weeks in a Balloon (1863), about the search for the source of the Nile, is certainly a contender. But its combination of fantasy and aeronautical antics make me inclined to describe it more as a work of science fiction Victoriana. I am, therefore, opting for King Solomon’s Mines, about a group of explorers searching for a lost city in southern Africa. In it, Haggard introduces many elements that have become staples of the genre, including white adventurers, warring natives, and the pursuit of fabulous mineral wealth. Haggard had traveled widely in Africa and fought in the Anglo–Zulu War. This is a characteristic shared by many of the books I’ve chosen: the authors were inspired by personal experiences of the continent.
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1899) – A decade after King Solomon’s Mines, more serious writers were using the genre to explore issues of colonialism and the nature of evil. Marlow, the story’s narrator, is sent up the Congo River to find Mr. Kurtz, an ivory trader who has gone insane. Conrad had made a similar journey himself. Although a novella, the book is dense, complex, and disturbing, and benefits from multiple readings. I wrote my dissertation on it at university and it was a big influence on my own book, The Afrika Reich. If you only read one book on this list, I urge you to try Heart of Darkness.
Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1912) – Arguably the most famous of all African adventures, this novel went on to spawn twenty-five sequels, numerous films, and even an Oscar-winning song. The story is well known: Lord and Lady Greystoke die in the jungles of central Africa, leaving their only son to be raised by gorillas. Eventually Tarzan (meaning white skin in the primate language) becomes King of the Apes. Burroughs tells more than a just good story. He is interested in how civilization deprives us of our relationship with nature, and, in doing so, obscures man’s true nature.
Beau Geste by P.C. Wren (1924) – While most classic African adventures feature the tropical regions of the continent, this novel is set in the Sahara and follows three English brothers named Geste in the French Foreign Legion. Wren, a former Legionnaire himself, vividly captures the brutal training and hardship of the desert while simultaneously using this unlikely setting to examine the values of the British aristocracy. The title plays on the brothers’ name: in French, beau geste means a fine gesture…with futile consequences. The Foreign Legion background was an inspiration for the character Burton Cole in my books.
The African Queen by C.S. Forester (1935) – This is now probably better known for the Oscar-winning film adaptation starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Set during the African campaigns of World War I, much of the drama—and enjoyment—of the novel comes from the unlikely pairing of a female missionary with an alcoholic boat captain, owner of the eponymous vessel. They battle cataracts, disease, and disaster to attack the German navy and, in the process, fall in love. The book ends with the famous line “Whether or not they lived happily ever after is not easily decided.”
Scoop by Evelyn Waugh (1938) – In a list full of derring-do, it’s good to have one comic novel. Set in the fictional Ishmaelia, the plot features an inept journalist (Boot of the Beast) sent to cover an invasion of the country where he inadvertently gets the scoop of the title. As much a satire on the newspaper business as it is colonial adventurism, the novel brims with farce and comical characters from the hapless William Boot to Lord Copper, owner of the Daily Beast. The show is stolen, however, by Salter, the foreign editor, who rather than disagree with his boss, merely says, “Up to a point, Lord Copper.” The basis for the book was Waugh’s own experiences reporting the Italian invasion of Abyssinia.
When the Lion Feeds by Wilbur Smith (1964) – No list of African adventures would be complete without Wilbur Smith, the contemporary master of the genre. My personal favorites are Shout at the Devil and the mostly forgotten Gold Mine. However, When the Lion Feeds is perhaps the best place for new readers to start as it was the book that introduced the Courtney family and a series that charts the history of Africa. Over the course of thirteen novels, Smith follows the Courtneys from the seventeenth century to modern times as they are caught up in some of the most tumultuous events on the continent.
The Wild Geese by Daniel Carney (1978) – Against a real backdrop of wars, coups, and political unrest, the 1970s saw a number of novels about mercenaries in Africa, the best known being Frederick Forsyth’s The Dogs of War. My choice, however, is The Wild Geese. Originally called The Thin White Line, it is a classic men-on-a-mission story, set around mineral rights in a thinly disguised Rhodesia. The at-the-time unpublished manuscript was turned into a film (hence the change of title) starring Richard Burton, Richard Harris, and Roger Moore. The novel’s ending is different from the film’s and continues to have the power to shock.
Congo by Michael Crichton (1980) – Crichton takes many of the tropes of the African adventure novel—lost cities, exotic fauna, erupting volcanoes—and gives them a techno-thriller twist. An expedition is sent to deepest Congo to find a source of diamonds needed for the telecoms industry. The searchers take with them state-of-the-art equipment and Amy, a gorilla who can communicate via sign language. In the opening pages, Crichton thanks many of the characters for their assistance in writing the book, while at the end there is an extensive bibliography. The first time I read it, I wasn’t entirely sure whether I was reading a dramatized account of true events or a work of fiction!
The Constant Gardener by John le Carré (2001) – As I was compiling this list, it struck me that the grand African adventure has fallen out of fashion in recent decades. It has been replaced by a more serious type of book. This may reflect events on the continent itself or a new sensibility among writers. The best example of this breed of thriller is The Constant Gardener in which a British diplomat investigates the circumstances of his wife’s death in Kenya and is drawn into a conspiracy involving big pharma. His quest for the truth offers an adventure worthy of Rider Haggard or Conrad, and le Carré depicts Africa as vividly as any of his predecessors. But what’s most notable is a new sensitivity to the plight of Africans themselves
Guy Saville’s The Madagaskar Plan is out now in hardback and ebook, published by Henry Holt. Set in 1953, it imagines a world where Nazi Germany rules much of Europe and a vast Africa territory. There has been no Holocaust. Instead, five million Jews have been deported to Madagascar, a tropical ghetto ruled by the SS.