The best novels set in Africa about journalists, diplomats, and spies

Keith B. Richburg Author Of Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa
By Keith B. Richburg

The Books I Picked & Why

Rules of the Wild: A Novel of Africa

By Francesca Marciano

Book cover of Rules of the Wild: A Novel of Africa

Why this book?

Not many books, fiction or nonfiction, have accurately captured the crazy world of the 1990s expat community of Kenya — the journalists, diplomats, do-gooders, conservationists, backpackers, and erstwhile adventurers. But Francesca Marciano does so masterfully here. Set against the backdrop of the turmoil of the ‘90s, with the Somalia intervention, the civil war in Sudan, and the Rwandan genocide, Marciano takes a simple tried and true story of a woman torn between two lovers — one of them a jaded British newspaper correspondent — to paint a vivid portrait of contemporary Africa, its tragedies and boundless natural beauty, and the foreigner interlopers and descendants of white settlers who call it home. If the characters all ring true, it’s because they are taken from real life.

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The Canal House

By Mark Lee

Book cover of The Canal House

Why this book?

Okay, this fine novel is only partially set in Africa, in Uganda, where intrepid fictional journalist Daniel McFarland treks into the jungles to find and interview the leader of a rebel group based on the Lords Resistance Army. Told from the vantage point of world-weary photographer Nicky Bettencourt, the action later shift to East Timor during the fight for independence against Indonesia. This novel comes as close as any to describe the real lives of foreign correspondents — the unnecessary risks, the loneliness of life lived constantly on the road. It’s beautifully written, a good read, and reeks of authenticity.

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The Distance Between Stars

By Jeff Elzinga

Book cover of The Distance Between Stars

Why this book?

This sleeper of a novel creates the fictional East African country of Umbika, with its charismatic strongman who everyone refers to as “His Excellency, the Life President”, in a thinly veiled resemblance to Malawi under the dictatorship of the late Hastings Banda. Small wonder for the comparison, since the author was a foreign service officer in Malawi before turning full-time to writing. The journalist in this fast-paced story is an outspoken African-American activist and columnist named Maurice Hightower, and the story revolves around the career American diplomat, Joe Kellerman, who gets the unwanted job of escorting Hightower around Umbika in the middle of an escalating civil war.

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American Spy

By Lauren Wilkinson

Book cover of American Spy

Why this book?

This book is probably best known for making Barack Obama’s summer reading list. The story of a Black American woman working for the FBI who gets recruited by the CIA for a Cold War mission to befriend, and ultimately undermine, the revolutionary president of Burkina Faso is the type of historical fiction I love, a spy thriller based on true events and taken directly from the headlines of the 1980s. Wilkinson brilliantly weaves together a story of race, class, gender, identity, and above all patriotism and loyalty.

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A Good Man in Africa

By William Boyd

Book cover of A Good Man in Africa

Why this book?

This laugh-out-loud story of a bumbling British diplomat, Morgan Leafy, in the fictitious African country of Kinjanja evokes the immediate British post-colonial with a dark wit and a sense for the absurd. The colonial expats depicted in the book are all thoroughly dislikable, but as Leafy gets mired deeper and deeper into problems, I found myself rooting for him to find a way out. His characterisation of the expats and the locals, and the hilarious interactions between them, seem searingly accurate, probably because Boyd grew up in Nigeria and Ghana, giving him rich material for his first novel.

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