(And other exploits of a murder-mystery writer)
I feel I would be cheating my readers if I didn’t experience most, if not all, of the circumstances my Ghanaian protagonist Detective Inspector Darko goes through. The notable exception to this is the murders themselves. I think I’ll pass on those.
So what is it like to escape from a helicopter that ditches in the Atlantic Ocean, and why does it matter? The question arose because Darko, in order to visit an oilrig as part of a murder investigation in my novel Murder at Cape Three Points, has to undergo what’s called Helicopter Underwater Escape Training (HUET), in which trainees must escape from a mock helicopter cabin after it is submerged in water and turned upside down. Most offshore oilrigs all over the world, be they in the Gulf of Guinea or the North Sea, are accessed by helicopter, so in case the craft needs to ditch in an emergency, rig workers and visitors must be certified in survival training before being allowed to make the journey across the wide span of water.
Since Darko had to visit an oilrig off Ghana’s coast, I wanted to the same. That meant I had to do the HUET as well, just as Darko did in the novel. It was life imitating art, or maybe the other way around. In the story, Darko does quite well in the training. In real life, my own experience with the HUET was a little rough, even though I swim well and have no fear of deep water. I did eventually get it, but I won’t pretend I didn’t get very disoriented after being submerged in the training pool and turned upside down.
In February 2014, when I did take the forty-five minute chopper ride to an oilrig some thirty-eight miles off Ghana’s coast, I thankfully never had to use my new HUET skills. To the contrary, it was a wonderful experience and just like Darko, I found the chopper trip exhilarating and the actual tour of the oilrig utterly fascinating.
In researching another one of my novels in the Darko series, I took a late-night tour with a police detective friend of mine through some of the rougher streets in Accra, Ghana’s capital. I never felt in danger, but it would have been different had I been alone. Likewise, for the upcoming Darko story with illegal gold mining as its backdrop, someone local who knew the terrain and personnel accompanied me to the mines and protected me from going anywhere that might have been imprudent. One experience I enjoyed was trying my hand at digging up the gravel that is washed to retrieve small amounts of gold. I never got any, by the way.
Research for my novels always introduces me to fascinating new realms, and I love to share them with my readers through the medium of fiction. I like manipulating the physical environment to fit the murder too—and vice versa. Most of all, I enjoy it when the line between fiction and reality is very thin. Except the murder, of course.
Kwei will be giving away a copy of Murder at Cape Three Points for the best comment or question, so weigh in early and often!