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Monday 25 September 2023

‘The Kingdoms of Savannah’ by George Dawes Green

Published by Headline,
11 May 2023.
ISBN: 978-1-03540187-1 (PBO)

If you’re looking for a seriously fascinating novel that takes you on a journey into an unfamiliar society – well, unfamiliar to most – and into the heads of unusual and brilliantly depicted characters, this 2023 CWA Gold
Dagger-winning novel is it.

It’s not an easy read to begin with, partly because of that unfamiliarity, to which the author makes no concession, and partly because of the writing style which is individual and very much in the voices of the characters. I was dubious at first and rapt by the ending. I hope it’s the start of a series and there will be more.

The story begins with two characters making their way to a Savannah bar. Their backgrounds are hazy, but they don’t have money or regular jobs. After we see them, we’re told that Luke, young, white, is killed; Stony, black, forties, an archaeologist of some kind, disappears. Then there is a white family – wealthy and with huge status – but one of the adult sons, Ransom, no longer lives in the family mansion. He lives on the streets. A decision made more impactful when we’re told in the very early goings that his mother, the formidable, widowed matriarch Morgana Musgrove, once screamed at him as a child in front of friends that he would end up a hobo. So, another pivotal character is introduced to us. Another is Jaq. She’s black, eighteen, granddaughter of Morgana and has two mothers, who live together. Jaq connects all the characters who play a key role in  the novel: she works at Bo Peep’s, the bar where we saw Luke and Stony at the beginning whom she often treats to free drinks, she’s a good friend of her uncle Ransom’s and she works for her grandmother waitressing at fundraisers. We’re shown all this very soon, giving an indication of the elements that populate the novel and bring the world to life.

The overarching theme of the novel is corruption and greed, epitomised by the man in the clink who wants Morgana as proprietor of a more or less moribund detective agency to help get him off a charge of arson; Archie Guzman, a heartily despised businessman who is accused of setting fire to his building where a young homeless man – Luke – was taking refuge. The Gooze, as he is known, has no friends and Morgana isn’t popular in Savannah’s posh circles for taking on the case. Not that she worries, and the fee he’s willing to pay is outrageous as the state is also talking about a murder charge. She picks up Ransom from a homeless camp, one of many that ring the city, to help her.

The other, much more unusual theme is the mysterious Kingdom that Stony seems to know about. It carries more than a hint of the supernatural and this is enhanced by the itinerant character known as the Musician who is often heard whistling in a haunting, beautiful way but never seen. The contrasts between this Kingdom, which might contain treasure, and the Savannah kingdoms, of the homeless and of the rich and influential, are at the heart of the novel.

I’ve rarely read such a fine novel in terms of layers and detail. The crime element was satisfying with growing tension, culminating in an exciting life-or-death race against time and ruthless enemies, where Jaq, Ransom and Stony in particular play strong parts. It’s a deserved winner of the highest UK accolade in crime writing, and well worth seeking out for a transporting read.
Reviewer: Dea Parkin

George Dawes Green was born in 1954. He is the author of the highly acclaimed novel The Caveman's Valentine, as well as a poet whose work has appeared in The Ontario Review, Carolina Quarterly, and other literary publications. He lives in Key West, Florida.

Dea Parkin
is an editor with her consultancy Fiction Feedback and is also Coordinator of the Crime Writers’ Association. She writes poetry and occasionally re-engages with The Novel. When she isn't engaged in literary pursuits, she is usually to be found on the tennis court – or following the international tour on TV. Usually with several books on the go, she entertains a penchant for crime fiction, history, and novels with a mystical edge. She is engaged in a continual struggle to find more space for bookshelves and more time to have fun with her friends.

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