"You are never going to be able to see inside the African mind," says a character in Peter Dickinson's new novel, "Tefuga."

"It would do you precious little good if you could," replies another. "There's nothing in there worth study. Our only way forward is to prise open the African skull, remove its present contents and replace them. Until the African comes round to our way of thinking, in the literal sense of the word, the European method of organizing one's thought-processes, he will remain intransigently unreliable and backward. The key, the surgical instrument for this operation, is communication. In the first place, roads."

That exchange of dialogue, set in British colonial Nigeria of the 1920s, is typical of one attitude Dickinson captures so well in "Tefuga." The British colonial mind -- forthright, self-confident, categorical and bewilderingly illogical -- is painted brilliantly here. But so are the dark, mystical and equally illogical attitudes of the indigenous tribes of Nigeria, people whose mythical origins shape their present behavior: among others, the Fulani, descended from cattle, and the Hausa, descended from horses. Dickinson, author of more than two dozen mysteries and children's books, re-creates this clash of attitudes. The result -- as almost always happens in really good books about Africa -- is a portrait of what neither side in the conflict was truly capable or large-minded enough to comprehend: Africa itself.

Dickinson uses a novelistic structure that is increasingly popular of late, one that allows considerable perspective and flexibility. In the present time, British television journalist Nigel Jackland is making a film in Nigeria. The film, which stars Mary Tressider, with whom he is currently having a casual affair, is about his own parents' unfortunate stay in Nigeria in the 1920s when his father was in the Colonial Service. Progress on the film is hampered by increasing threats of a military coup and by Jackland and Tressider's difficulty in understanding the characters they are trying to capture.

The film is based on a journal kept by Jackland's mother, played in the film by Tressider, during her year in Nigeria. Dickinson provides us with the journal, itself a tour de force of writing, in alternate chapters, and past and present are tellingly played off against each other.

The journal is brilliant with the vivid details of real life and the personality of a vibrant woman who manages, despite the male-dominated colonial world of her place and time, to touch the throbbing heart of a world in which she can never be more than a visitor. She begins tentatively, arriving fresh-faced and a little frightened in an alien world, puzzled and further alarmed by the African ways of mind she encounters. But, strong-minded herself, she follows her own path and comes to see and understand some things that her male protectors cannot comprehend. She picks up the local language and begins tutoring a bright young African named Elongo. She learns the various animosities among the different local tribes and among the various levels of society. And she begins to play a role in those conflicts herself.

Back in the present, Jackland and Mary Tressider try to unravel the truth of what happened before and during the infamous "Tefuga incident," a small but bloody massacre. Their most reluctant source of information is Elongo himself, now an old man, spiritual leader of the Kitawa people and a living embodiment of the contradictions of old and new Africa.

For sheer storytelling power, "Tefuga" is wonderful. The characters are alive, the setting dazzles, and the blazing African sun almost brings a rash to the back of your neck. There is a strange mystery, and dozens of scenes are rendered with eyewitness clarity.

But "Tefuga" is more than that. Somewhere between the visions of the 1980s and the 1920s, the attitudes of old and new, the clashing world views and thought-processes of European and African, the facts and the myths, the fears and the hopes, there is Africa. There are more questions here than answers, and Dickinson makes us understand that where Africa is concerned, the questions and the mysteries themselves are the very heart of the matter.