When I first read Lightseekers — Femi Kayode’s debut novel, which won the 2019 UEA Crime Writing prize — I thought I had mistaken the crime thriller for a horror novel, as the prologue details a public execution preceded by gruesome forms of torture and violence that are definitely not for the faint-hearted.
The brutality and savagery depicted, with blood and gore aplenty, involved a group of three Nigerian university students accused of stealing. They were eventually set on fire alive after having been bludgeoned to near-death by a mob of townsfolk.
It was a tragic incident, one documented on smartphones — an affliction of modern-day society, with people stopping to capture incidents before leaping to action — and uploaded onto social media platforms, sparking a nationwide condemnation of the mob violence and the vigilantism or jungle justice exacted on the students.
How does one pin blame when a murder is committed by a crowd of people, especially when it is, to quote the protagonist in Lightseekers — Dr Philip Taiwo, a professor in investigative psychology — “a unified force rallying behind a crime initiated by one, covered by all”.
Dr Philip has recently returned from the US with his family to his hometown of Lagos, Nigeria, after completing his PhD research on mob lynching in America. Unbeknown to him, he would soon be embroiled in the notorious incident, dubbed by the media as the Okriki Three.
The academic is a far cry from the usual police officer or private detective and solving murders is not his forte. But he had been approached by a grieving parent of one of the murdered boys to seek out the truth behind the incident and investigate “why what happened, happened”. So, the psychologist with expertise in analysing crowd violence sets out for the small university town of Okriki to investigate. His journey is fraught with danger and revelations, something the brilliant but naïve Dr Philip did not sign up for.
Thus, begins a crazy turn of events as each chapter ends with new leads that compel not only the psychologist to find out more, but readers too. The suspense keeps us flipping the pages of this riveting story.
The action-packed plot is driven by Dr Philip and his “research” assistant, the quick-witted Chika Maruochi — a dynamic duo determined to get to the bottom of the murders. What they soon realise, however, from the uncooperative local police force to the hostility of the townsfolk and fraternities cum elusive secret cults, is that the seemingly random murders were far from a classic case of the victims being at the wrong place, at the wrong time. They reek of a pre-meditated crime.
This chilling discovery propels the pair farther down the rabbit hole of lies and deceit as characters in the novel slowly reveal themselves to be more than what they appear to be. Each conceals his or her own motive for arriving at the small sleepy town of Okriki, south of Port Harcourt.
Kayode’s characters, such as Dr Philip’s wife, Folake, Salome Briggs and Michael “Mike” Omereji, are complex and layered, lending the narrative a thrilling quality. The family dynamics too, between Dr Philip, Folake and his father, who was once part of a cult, add to the drama — providing a balance to the tension-filled narrative.
However, it is unfortunate that although Dr Philip is modelled (one assumes) after the author himself — whose background as a clinical psychologist would have benefited the plot if he had included informed psychological insight into the mind of the master criminal — the lack of instances in which Dr Philip makes use of his knowledge to analyse the crime from a psychological perspective only serves to make him similar to other astute and sharp detectives found in many crime novels.
But this issue proves to be a minor oversight when one considers the depiction of contemporary, modern-day Nigerian society in the novel. Kayode highlights the realities of living in a developing nation such as Nigeria, where a troubled political landscape results in a heavily armed military presence, and corruption, deep-seated as it is, feeds the underworld, where drugs, weapons and killings are a norm.
Uneven socio-economic development in the country results in class disparities and a juxtaposition of wealth and poverty, where one could travel to a decrepit airport whose passenger arrivals area is a mere tent next to the airstrip while just a few miles beyond lies a swanky and luxurious five-star hotel, something that Folake sums up best when she says: “Nothing makes sense in this country.”
Lightseekers is a gripping page-turner, one that despite its flaws, is intense, intriguing and irresistible.
Purchase 'Lightseekers' from Kinokuniya for RM82.72 here.
This article first appeared on Jan 25, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.