'Death of the Mantis' is an African thriller with Minnesota roots

Desert edge
The latest Michael Stanley novel "Death of the Mantis" is set on the edge of the Kalihari desert in Botswana.
Image courtesy Michael Stanley

"Death of the Mantis," the third book in the internationally successful Detective Kubu mystery series, arrives in bookstores this week.

Like the other Michael Stanley novels it's set in Botswana. This time the detective tries to solve a series of murders on the edge of the Kalihari desert. While the books are distinctively African, there is an important Minnesota connection.

Michael Stanley introduces himself.

"Michael Stanley is two of us actually," said one of the two men sitting at the table. "I'm Stan Trollip and I write with my friend Michael Sears."

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Trollip and Sears combined their first names to create a nome de plume after writing their first novel "A Carrion Death."

They are both South African, and both have had long careers as university professors. Sears lives in Johannesburg, but Trollip taught at the University of Minnesota, UND, and at Capella University. He still lives here part of the year.

Sears traces their writing career together back to an incident decades ago when they were traveling in Botswana.

"We saw a hyena completely chewing up a wildebeest, and we thought 'Wow! What a great way of getting rid of a body if you wanted to murder somebody,' " Sears recalls. "Because if there was no body there to find the police wouldn't have much chance of putting together a case. And we thought that might be an intriguing premise for putting together a mystery novel, but it took us about another 30 years to get round to writing it."

"A Carrion Death" begins with that grisly hyena meal.

Sears and Trollip have an intercontinental writing system. As they prepare to start a novel, they get together, usually in South Africa and spend about three weeks hashing out a plot outline. They decide who is going to write which parts.

After that, they go their own ways, Sears to Johannesburg, and Trollip to Minnesota, but Trollip said they keep in contact via Skype and email.

Michael Stanley
South Africans Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip write the Detective Kubu mysteries together using the nomme de plume Michael Stanley.
Image courtesy Michael Stanley

"So, for example I may write chapter three," said Trollip. "Once I finish chapter three I email it to Michael in South Africa and he..."

"Gets it the next morning," Sears said without missing a beat. "Very often as Stan goes to bed, the time change works for us. I pick it up and I go through it, and I think 'Oh, there's some interesting ideas here. I like some of this. Not much, but I like some of it,' and I go through and I start using 'Track Changes' and I change this and I change that, and I get it to the stage where I think I'm happy with it. And then I send it back to Stanley who's probably just waking up after his night in North America, and then he...

"Sees a page full of red ink," Trollip laughs.

Trollip and Sears say the almost instantaneous feedback can be brutal at times. Things can get testy particularly of one of them really dislikes something the other believes is brilliant. Each chapter can go back and forth ten or 15 times. Neither can imagine writing alone. Trollip said sometimes when they are asked who wrote what they draw a blank.

"It's very strange to actually be asked that question and not to be able to remember whether you wrote it or not in the first place," he said.

The Michael Stanley novels feature Det. David Bengu, better known as Kubu, the local word for hippo. It's a reference to his size as Kubu likes his food, Sears said.

"On the other hand he also is pretty focused, and if you get between him and his objective then that's not a good thing to do," Sears said. "And that's a hippo characteristic as well."

Sears and Trollip will read from "Death of the Mantis" 7 p.m. Wednesday evening at the Once Upon a Crime bookstore, 604 West 26th Street in Minneapolis.

While the Michael Stanley books are first and foremost mysteries, they do deal with real African issues: so-called blood diamonds, the legacy of the conflict in Zimbabwe, and the survival struggles of the Bushmen.

Stanley Trollip said they don't intend to use the books as a soapbox, but they are proud to be part of the new generation of African writers.

"I feel that we are trying to do is impart a sense of Africa," he said. "And even though it may not be a conscious thing that we do, I think it's just a part of our ethos and part of our soul if you like."

Trollip and Sears Minneapolis appearance is the start of a national tour, but they say they are already at work on the fourth detective Kubu book which they hope will appear next year.