To trace the origin of the thriller tradition in Nigeria, one would retrace his steps to books like “The Passport of Mallam Ilia,” “An African Night’s Entertainment,” “Jagua Nana” and “Jagua Nana’s Daughter,” and even “Our Man from Sagamu,” a veritable whodunit, which I think was published by Fontana.
“Was the Pacesetter series a child of circumstance,
a bright star fated to burn and depart ever so briefly?
Can it be resuscitated and made popular again?”
It was the immediacy and contemporaneity of the Pacesetter series that, I think, endeared it to us. It was easy for us to see ourselves and the world we lived in inside the pages of those books.
A curious thing happened in the 90s. The Pacesetter series died suddenly as if of a heart attack. It went off the shelves. There, however, seems to be a slow revival of the series but the problem that faced the African Writers Series in seeming anachronistic to an 11 year old in the early 80s will also affect the titles from the Pacesetter series which are being re-printed now. My son and daughter as well as their friends who have been weaned on Harry Porter and others would not readily identify with stories and characters that charmed me when I was their age.
It is also imperative to point out that the thriller tradition in Nigerian literature did not die with the series. It merely shifted base, became more elevated and acquired extra heft. In the past decade I have read books that would have, if not for their size and literary aspirations, fit perfectly well on the shelf with the very best of the Pacesetter series.
I speak of books like El Nukoya’s “Nine Lives;” Aracelli Aipoh’s “No Sense of Limits;” Eghosa Imasuen’s “To Saint Patrick;” Jude Dibia’s “Blackbird;” and even Helon Habila’s “Oil on Water.” There is also, of course, that book, ‘080808,’ by Leke Alder.
These books have the action, the criminal elements,the inflection of thriller novels. The characters, their actions, the locales they are dropped into and even the noir elements of the stories all add up.
In ‘To Saint Patrick’ the main character, Superintendent Ayo Nwanze and his female sidekick, FIIB detective Hadiza Jinadu could well be a 21st century transposition of Jack Abani and his girlfriend in “Mark of the Cobra”. The only difference is the elevated language and expanded subject matter which takes into account a very difficult subject and turbulent period in our history.
I mentioned earlier that very few established writers wrote for the series and that very few of those who wrote for the series went on to enjoy literary prominence or longevity except for Chuma Nwokolo and Helen Ovbiagele who is a long standing columnist for Vanguard.
Why has this been so and is this a pointer to the lack of literary merit in the novels published in the series? These are questions that scholars and those of us gathered here today must grapple with but it is obvious that no literary classics emerged from the Pacesetter series. Let me pose another question before I conclude. Was the Pacesetter series a child of circumstance, a bright star fated to burn and depart ever so briefly? Can it be resuscitated and made popular again?
I believe that it is possible to bring back the tradition but not in the sense of re-printing back issues. No. The publishers must seek new authors writing now and about contemporary and topical issues. Re-printing old titles would present the same problems of anachronism. We came close to a revival of this tradition of the slim, fast paced, urban contemporary story with the Hints Thrills and Boom series, which even though always with a bias for the romantic, featured elements of the thriller.
I was in Kenya two years ago and Binyavanga Wainana’s Kwani has an imprint called Kwanini, a mini Kwani. A pocket book, if there was one; the books in the series are short, gripping stories that reflect contemporary realities. Some of them are Caine prize winning stories. I heard they sell well, the best selling being “The Life and Times of Richard Onyango,” the very risqué and salacious autobiographical writings of artist and raconteur, Richard Onyango.
We may well have to copy the Kwanini experiment here in Nigeria.
As I have mentioned elsewhere, Nigerians love to read but they are not being fed the right literary fare. When they find it, I believe they will gobble it all up like we did Pacesetters years ago.