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Kukogho’s debut Devil’s Pawn is a page-turner reminiscent of Tom Clancy

Book: Devil’s pawn     Reviewer: Carl Terver    A night in Buscan City University, a female student, Ese Preston, is abducted by four boys who…

Book: Devil’s pawn    

Reviewer: Carl Terver 


A night in Buscan City University, a female student, Ese Preston, is abducted by four boys who belong to a notorious campus cult, the Black Cats. Emeka, the Black Cats’ capone, arrives in a Benz and meets them at a rendezvous. They drive to X-zone, their cult’s “holy ground,” and gang-rape Ese Preston. Emeka the capone goes first. This is the premise of Kukogho Iruesiri Samson’s thriller, Devil’s Pawn, whose firm opening – “Many people in Buscan City University could recognise Emeka Ezeani from a distance”—reveals a grip on his language and ability to lead readers into a story that begins to unravel, without detours, as a page-turning adventure. Even when Emeka finds out Ese is a virgin, he takes her. She warns the boys that they’re all dead; they’ll wish they were never born. This is because she is a water spirit who will avenge her rape. But the boys do not know this. 

Simon Tyough, a 200 Level mechanical engineering student whose misadventure and four months foray of being a Black Cat was more from coercion than his own will, is the last to have a go at Ese. But he chooses to pass, irking Emeka. “I’m not going to touch her. She’s almost dead,” he says. He’s forced with a gun to kill the girl instead. He hesitates, but Emeka who points a gun at him fires a scare shot, which by reflex Simon pulls his trigger, inadvertently killing Ese. It is a punishment for the girl: the rape and her death. She didn’t only refuse to date Emeka, a campus doyen, but had once slapped him when he pestered for her attention.

At dawn, two corpses are found without their penises. The corpses are of two of the boys from last night. The girl’s spirit has begun exacting revenge. And her spirit shall only rest if she’s killed all the boys. But it is Simon, whom she possesses through a preternatural sexual pact, who hunts down the boys. 

What started as a slap, a gang-rape and the death of a girl on campus, ends with a harvesting of penises. Because in no time, all the boys at the X-zone on that night meet their deaths and penises taken, except the last penis, Emeka’s, the ultimate, yet to be plucked. Before the mess, Emeka had assassinated a former presidential candidate. So, when he is rescued at the X-zone site where Simon, possessed by the dead girl’s spirit, is about to take his penis, Assistant Superintendent Kalu Manulife, who leads the police team to the site, find bullets that match the bullet used in assassinating the late presidential candidate. Bullets from Emeka’s gun. 

With such lead, ASP Kalu, who’s had enough setbacks in his career already, finds an olive branch and reopens the assassination case, feeding his journalist ally Zangnif Hir of the newspaper City Watch information about the reopened case, then published in the press, stirring up the political space and unsettling Sylvan Odibe, a seating governor, who orchestrated the assassination. 

And so, the story begins spinning, setting off like stepped-on landmines. While ASP Kalu holds Emeka hostage as a key witness for testimony in court to indict Governor Sylvan for murder; Emeka dreads his emasculation by an invincible Simon coming for him. The governor tasks his ruthless fireman Benson, an ex DSS officer and former enemy of Kalu, to hunt down and kill Emeka. Another threatening national headline looms on the horizon. The heat never stops for any character in the twists and turns, recalling NYTimes bestsellers by Tom Clancy, or Lisa Jackson. Devil’s Pawn transports some readers back to their teens when they felt the electric rush of a James Hadley Chase novel; and for its Nigerian landscape, the rustic action movies of Teco Benson. 

Although the story begins with Emeka, the Black Cats doyen; it is Simon Tyough who has the world hanging around his neck, as he tries to free himself from the possession of Ese’s dead spirit; a horror for a fledgling, young man. His is the case of youthful misadventure, which, beyond the gore and blood, the adrenaline rush, and action-packed scenes, is at the heart of the story. 

Firstly, he is in-between sleep and (sub)consciousness when he is lured by Ese Preston’s water spirit to a tryst. Earlier, when Emeka takes the maiden Ese, we find Simon grow a boner, which he quickly becomes ashamed of, before his penis returns flaccid. Thus, what appears is the classic scenario of the exploitation of the repressed desires of the tempted by their temptress—a familiar plot throughout history—which leads Simon to sleep with the devil (Ese’s spirit), becoming its pawn. But in account is also what leads in the first place to Simon’s company. In his first days in campus, he is harassed by a student who is a cultist. Harassed a second time and tired of the humiliation, he asks help from a friend who is in a rival cult group. Weeks later, his harasser is found dead, whose consequence means one thing: Simon becomes a cultist, too. It’s the old story of misguided youthful foolishness. 

Such mundane tales go by on Nigerian campuses, and lead to furthermore mundane cases of mindless feuds that result in the mindless deaths of young men and boys yet to experience the better part of their lives. Kukogho’s Devil’s Pawn somehow projects, as well as it investigates, this banality in its graphic presentation of deaths and the spilling of blood; so mindless it is, one must assign meaning to it as an appeasement of the chthonic deities or principalities of darkness. Because of the senselessness. When industrious ASP Kalu, for example, is assigned to the case of deaths following a retaliation on rival cultist members when Emeka believed the deaths of his friends (who raped Ese) was an attack on the Black Cats by their rivals, Kalu already imagines the play out: “Someone killed someone and another someone avenged the first someone by killing the original someone. It would go on and on until all the someones were dead or exhausted from the fighting.” A bleeding season, to apply words aptly. 

Alas, we come to see Simon finally free himself. A lot has happened: Simon has been a super-villain with supernatural powers (of not dying from gunshots), and a hero. He is very close to killing Emeka, but with the pleas from Kalu and a new love interest, Joan, Kalu’s younger sister, whom he saved from being raped, he finds himself and finally confronts Ese’s spirit, “Fuck you. It’s not my fault that you died. I have done things because of you. Let me be.”

It is not difficult to spot Hollywood influences in the structural arc of Kukogho’s novel; something becoming noticeable today with our storytellers and scriptwriters. However, the tropes remain at home. Here is a story of the urban myths we grew up with, of spirits mixing up with the affairs of men; mami water, Lady Koi Koi, and bush babies. 

Not hidden also, is the attempt at cosmopolitanism, or the pan-Nigerian: the setting is flattened out, erasing ethnic accentuation—where is Buscan City? The names of characters cutting across ethnicities, Ese’s very British “Preston” surname, and so on. Nor hidden is the author’s re-imagination of a Nigerian Police where forensics, state-of-the-art facilities, and standard procedures are used in solving crimes. This is too much to look for in a thriller novel but, nonetheless, it highlights a by-product of Kukogho’s literary imagination, that whilst engaging in escape fiction, there’s social vision, too, as we learn from the novel’s criticism of cultism. 

Kukogho’s Devil’s Pawn, like a leopard poised in waiting, to pounce, leapt and won as the best manuscript in the 2018 Guaranty Trust Bank’s CSR project, the Dusty Manuscript Contest, and was eventually published in 2020. It is a doubtless winner for any reader who appreciates the thriller genre. In your hands, it is still that leopard poised. Its pages leap at you as you flip them unstoppably. 

Carl Terver is a critic and poet based in Makurdi, Benue State. 

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