08/01/2013 01:59 pm ET Updated Oct 01, 2013

Africa, Alas!

I have just finished reading the Father's Day gift I received from my son. I know, it's a long time since then, but I have plenty of excuses... Anyway, he and I share an appreciation for good writing, even if it comes in the form of a suspense novel; and I always look forward to his recommendations and gifts. He has introduced me to a number of writers whose work I would otherwise have missed.

Such is the case with Robert Wilson. I tried one of his novels a while ago and couldn't get on with it--I forget its title. But Blood Is Dirt arrived on Father's Day, and I finally got to it last week. It's a good read--hardboiled stuff, with the inevitable echoes of everybody's master, Raymond Chandler. The venue for Wilson's intrigue is West Africa. I found it a little slow at the start, but the pace picked up and I was pretty soon engaged in the action, which involves everything from toxic waste and shady, multi-million dollar oil deals to the illegal transportation and sale of nuclear material. The hero, Bruce Medway, does a lot of hard-drinking, suffers not only from hangovers but the occasional beating from the bad guys, and tries to sort out his love life. Meantime, he pursues the truth with relentless tenacity, and ends up none the richer for having found it.

So the story is good, the array of despicable characters motley and believable. We meet the would-be despots, the plutocrats, the barflies and the working girls, the cops and the tradesfolk, and the vast numbers who struggle merely to keep afloat, from dock workers to cab drivers and bit-part mercenaries. But what makes the story come alive, as much as these, is the setting itself. Wilson grabs us by the heels and drags us into the squalid, seething world of contemporary West Africa--Benin, in particular, and Nigeria--despoiled by the advance of Western culture, the once-pristine air foully polluted by ubiquitously clogged traffic on the highways and the fumes of industry. Along with the hero, we sweat in the pitiless heat on the trek from seedy hotels, slums and warehouse districts to the depths of the jungle and the luxurious residences of those who profit from an economy that leaves the rest of humanity in abject poverty.

Wilson captures the greed and desperation of an overpopulated world, where mere survival is for most an endless struggle. The glimpses of human kindness, laughter and love are rare in this book--but nonetheless welcome rays of light that penetrate the fetid atmosphere and leave us, well, glad that it all turned out alright in the end. Justice, of a kind, is served. And the hero survives all odds for what we're sure will be another hard day tomorrow.