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The Thriller Tradition in Nigerian Literature (1)


The first novel I read in the Pacesetters series was Mark of The Cobra by Valentine Alily. It featured a young Nigerian secret service agent. Set obviously against a western template but with African characters in an African locale, it just blew my mind.

It was a welcome change from reading about Nick Carter and James Bond, white characters who used weapons with names like Wilhelmina and who wore tuxedos and drank martinis that were shaken not stirred.

It was great to see a Commander Jack Ebony aka Jack Abani who was a Nigerian secret service agent battling bad guys in a sports car with a sultry female side kick.

I was taciturn and introverted young man with a stutter; so books were my refuge and anchor in a turbulent world. With books I could escape, day dream, travel, be as adventurous as the characters I read about in those small books that you could run through in hours and which fit snugly in the back pocket of my corduroy or jeans trousers.

I was in love and not just with the stories of young Africans navigating various issues in mostly urban settings from Lagos to Nairobi to Soweto, but with the cover images of young handsome and pretty African looking people.

It was fresh and real and different, far different from books in the African Writers series, books whose covers were partial towards sketches and line drawings and abstract representative images.

The Pacesetters series was launched by Macmillan. I am not sure of the year but I began noticing them as I turned ten. The stories, the cover images, the size, the language and subject matter all seemed to suggest that Macmillan was targeting a younger, more cosmopolitan audience different from the academic audience which read novels in the African Writers Series.

Longmans also reached out to younger and more urban readers with their Drumbeat series. The Drumbeat series was more literary in taste and had more heft than the Pacesetter series and introduced the literary world to some major works in the early to mid 80s from Ben Okri with “Flowers and Shadows” and “The Landscapes Within” to Isidore Okpewho with “The Victims” and “The Last Duty” as well as books by Festus Iyayi and a host of others.

I am not aware of any of the titles in the Pacesetter series ever having been recommended reading in any curriculum, secondary or tertiary but some in the Drumbeat series were recommended.

The audience for the series was young, hip and cool. Pacesetter novels were for the MTV generation long before we knew what MTV was.

Now that I think about it, I don’t recall my parents or teachers reading novels in the series. In hindsight, I seem to get the feeling that they actually felt the series was second rate in some respect to books, say in the African Writers Series.

But for a young boy hungry for literary adventure and without a very discerning literary palate, the series offered something fresh and exciting while satisfying a huge need.

I went to schools where best students received prices and I recall getting two books as best student in my first year: ”Stop Press, Murder,” by Mohmed Tukur Garba and, “A Fresh Start,” by Helen Ovbiagele.

Because I wasn’t physically active, most of the gifts I got on my birthdays were not the usual boys stuff like footballs or soccer boots etc. The only gifts I got aside cash gifts were books. Everyone knew I loved books and in time, I soon had a stash of Pacesetter novels to the envy of my peers.

The books in the series were not all thrillers about dashing young men and nubile damsels. They were also sedate stories like “Rich Boy, Boy Girl,” and romance themed stories like “For Mbatha and Rabeka,” and “Evbu, my love.”

Then there were legal thrillers like Chuma Nwokolo’s “Dangerous Inheritance” and “The Extortionist.” There were books with mystical themes like “The worshippers” and “Dealers in Death” by Victor Thorpe as well as others that just didn’t fit into a particular niche like Phillip Phil Ebosie’s “The Cyclist.”

But the most popular and I guess best read were the thrillers. The standout titles were “Mark of the Cobra;’ “Coup;” “Bloodbath at Lobsters Close,” “Hijack,” “The South African Affair” etc.

These authors created characters who were secret agents or police officers and gave them life.  Readers came to love and follow their antics through these books. As children we talked about Jack Abani and Inspector Malu as if they were people we knew or at best, movie stars whose movies we had watched and loved. And it is easy to see why – we had no Nollywood then.

At 11, I had read quite a number of novels in the African Writers Series as well as those from Fontana. My father had a huge library and I had become the default librarian.

And even though I enjoyed a few of them especially Ayi Kwei Armah’s “Fragments” and “Why are we so blest?” as well as Achebe’s “A Man of the people” I did not relate to the stories and characters the way I did with novels in the Pacesetter series. The former was stiff and academic and overly literary while the latter were fun, fast paced, cosmopolitan and contemporary. I fell in love immediately.

It is remarkable that very few literary authors who cut their teeth with the African Writers Series gravitated towards the Pacesetter series. The only example, if memory serves me right, is Buchi Emecheta with “Naira Power” and maybe two other titles that I can’t recall.

It is also significant to note that aside from Chuma Nwokolo, there isn’t really any writer who cut his teeth with the Pacesetter series who is still writing actively today. We will return to these two issues in due course.

Though the title of this essay seems to suggest that the Pacesetter series set the stage for the thriller tradition in Nigeria, nothing could be farther from the truth.

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.

What set them apart from novels in the Pacesetter Series was the fact that they appeared dated. The young man in me could not immediately relate to action taking place 20 to 50 years earlier.

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.

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