“What Happened To The Pacesetter Series? – And When Will The New Nigerian Thriller Come?” #Throwback – Toni Kan

As the Lagos Books and Arts Festival (LABAF) draws closer, we present a throwback piece by Toni Kan presented at LABAF some six years ago in which he wonders aloud what happened to the pacesetters series while throwing a challenge to Generation Z

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. Modelled obviously after a western template but with African characters in an African locale, it just about 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 Captain 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.

 A sickly, taciturn and introverted young man with a stutter, books were my refuge and anchor in a turbulent sea. 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 published by Macmillan. I am not sure of the year but I began noticing them as I turned ten in 1981. 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 that read novels in the African Writers Series.

Longmans also reached out to younger, hipper 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. I recall getting two books as best student in my first year: Helen Ovbiagele’s “Evbu, My Love” and Mark of the Cobra.

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 about rustic life and romance themed stories like for “Rebecca and Mbatha,” “Evbu, my love.” 

Then there were legal thrillers like Chuma Nwokolo’s “The Inheritors” and “Undesirable Element.” There were books with mystical themes like “The Worshippers” and “Stone of Vengeance” by Victor Thorpe as well as others that just didn’t fit into a particular niche like Phil Ebosie’s “The Cyclist.”

But the most popular and I guess best read were the thrillers. In fact some of those would have been referred to, if they were movies, as franchises: novels that featured the same character in successive books.

The standout thrillers were “Mark of the Cobra,’ “Coup,’ “Bloodbath at Lobsters Close,” “Hijack,” 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?”, I did not relate to the stories 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.

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. I 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 “The 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 will 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.

I speak of Books like El Nukoya’s “Nine Lives;” Aracelli Aipoh’s “No Sense of Limits;” Eghosa Imasuen’s “To Saint Patrick;”Jude Dibia’s “Blackbird;” and even Helon Habila’s “Oil on Water.” There is also, of course, that book, ‘888,’ by Leke Alder.

These books have the action, the criminal elements, the inflection of thriller novels. The characters, their actions, the locales they are dropped into and even the noir elements of the stories all add up.

In ‘To Saint Patrick’ the main character and his female sidekick could well be a 21st century transposition of Jack Abani and his girlfriend in “Mark of the Cobra”. The only difference is the elevated language and expanded subject matter which takes into account a very difficult subject and turbulent period in our national history.

I mentioned earlier that very few literary giants wrote for the series and that very few of those who wrote for the series went on to enjoy literary prominence or longevity except for Chuma Nwokolo and Helen Ovbiagele who is a long standing columnist for Vanguard.

Why has this been so and is this a pointer to the lack of literary merit in the novels published in the series? These are questions that scholars and those of us must grapple with but it is obvious that no literary classics emerged from the Pacesetter series.

Let me pose another question before I conclude. Was the Pacesetter series a child of circumstance, a bright star fated to burn and depart ever so briefly? Can it be resuscitated and made popular again?

 I believe that it is possible to bring back the tradition but not in the sense of re-printing back issues. No. The publishers must seek new authors writing now and about contemporary stuff. Re-printing old titles would present the same problems of anachronism.

 We came close to a revival of this tradition of the slim, fast paced, urban contemporary story with the Hints Thrills and Boom series, which even though always with a bias for the romantic, featured elements of the thriller.

I was in Kenya two years ago and Binyavanga Wainana’s Kwani has an imprint called Kwanini, a mini Kwani. A pocket book, if there was one; the books in the series are short, gripping stories that reflect contemporary realities. Some of them are Caine prize winning stories. I heard they sell well, the best selling being “The Life and Times of Richard Onyango,” the very risqué and salacious autobiographical writings of artist and raconteur, Richard Onyango.  

 We may well have to copy the Kwanini experiment here in Nigeria.

As I have mentioned in the past, Nigerians love to read but they are not being fed the right literary fare. When they find it, I believe they will gobble it all up like we did Pacesetters years ago.

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