Dogstar Rising (2013) is the second in a series of crime stories set in Cairo featuring Makana, a former police inspector from Sudan who has fled to Egypt for political reasons, and now works as a private detective. I should probably have read the first in the series first – that is, The Golden Scales (2012) – not so much because it’s necessary to understand the characters or the plot, but because this one’s so good that I regret not building up my acquaintance with Mr Makana from his first case. There is one unexplained friendship that I assume dates from the first book, but it doesn’t really matter to the story.
It is Cairo, 2001. The scene is set in a prologue in which doubt and uncertainly surround the appearance of what some people claim to be an angel. Is it a good or bad omen? Has it anything to do with the deaths of a number of children in the slums of Cairo? The story then moves to the case Makana has been asked to investigate. Some letters quoting verses from the Koran have been received in the offices of the Blue Ibis travel agency. Are they a threat against a business which brings ungodly, alcohol imbibing tourists into Egypt? Who might have sent them? There is no thought of contacting the police; ‘You don’t involve officialdom in any of your business because there was always a risk it might attract the wrong kind of attention.’ But the investigation soon takes a sinister turn, and Makana finds that he is involved in all sorts of trouble from men on the make, organised crime and the National Security service. It’s a complex story, but cleverly plotted and quite convincingly resolved. As I’ve noted before, private detectives can’t end their case with an arrest, and have to find other ways of dealing with the enemies they make. Bilal does this quite creatively, leaving some ends untied, presumably to be taken up in later books.
In addition to the poverty, violence and crime that seem to characterise Cairo, Bilal sets his story against the very real background of the uneasy relations between Egypt’s Coptic Christians and the majority Muslim population. You can read the sad history of these relations here. There is also discrimination against a Muslim scholar who seeks to place some elements of the Koran in historical context. Makana himself has little religious faith. But there are others who are happy to stir up hatred against the minority Christians, and invoke acts of violence against them. Bilal does an excellent job of conveying the pressure-cooker atmosphere of a society that is being constrained by a repressive state, where corruption is commonplace and where fundamentalist religion is used to maintain a dictatorial elite in power. ‘It’s a smokescreen,’ says one of Makana’s friends, ‘the same old method of pretending nothing is wrong with our society.’
Makana’s status as an outsider allows him to look with a clear, if somewhat jaundiced eye at Egyptian society. He notes, for example, that the tour guides ‘seemed to regard their charges with contempt, as if by the very act of coming here and paying handsomely for the experience, they qualified to be treated like idiots.’ Reading the official newspaper ‘was to enter into a fantasy world of fairy tales and deceit.’ On the other hand, Western music ‘was a form of foreign domination that made you yearn for Suez again, for revolt of any kind, to free the country of this subservience.’ But he regrets his exile. ‘The need to belong was perhaps no longer as powerful as it might have been but it was still there, like an appendix, an evolutionary relic that serves no real purpose but was lodged in the body as a reminder you had to live with.’ I find Makana a thoroughly sympathetic figure. There is a whole cast of others lovingly crafted characters as well.
Given the quality of the writing I’ve quoted, it may not come as a surprise that Parker Bilal is a pseudonym of Jamal Mahjoub, a mixed race writer of British and Sudanese parents who has already published seven literary novels. These achieved decent reviews, but few sales. However he says that he hasn’t turned to crime writing purely to make money; ‘crime writing,’ he says, ‘has audience, so it allows me to write. It’s a pressure valve to release stories that would otherwise go untold.’ Makana reflects something of Mahjoub’s own family’s circumstances. Born in London, he was brought up in Khartoum, where his father ran an English-language newspaper. When his father was threatened with imprisonment, his parents settled in exile in Cairo. Visiting them there, Mahjoub felt ‘that all the ingredients for a revolution were in place, with the inequality and state repression. It felt like France must have felt before the French Revolution.’ This is the feeling he conveys so well in this book.
You can read more about Jamal Mahjoub and Parker Bilal here. He intends to write a series of eight further Makana stories, going up to the overthrow of President Mubarak in 2011. Definitely one to watch out for.