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by Parker Bilal
Bloomsbury, February 2012
397 pages
11.99 GBP
ISBN: 1408824892

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Makana is an obscure and unsuccessful private detective, scarcely able to find the rent for the broken-down Nile houseboat on which he lives. He is surprised to be asked (almost instructed) by Saad Hanafi, a wealthy Egyptian businessman, to find Adil Romario, a star footballer in the team Hanafi owns who has disappeared. Makana accepts the case and at the beginning of his search encounters an English woman, Liz Markham, who tells him that she is still searching for her daughter who went missing in Cairo seventeen years before when she was a little girl. Makana, who it turns out has also lost a child, is extremely affected by her story and when she is murdered shortly afterwards he begins to think - although he cannot say why - that the disappearance of her daughter and his investigation into the missing Adil are in some way linked.

Ostensibly the story involves the search for Adil but that becomes almost incidental as we are taken back in time to discover more about Makana himself. Somehow or other - it does not become clear until the end of the book - his wife and child were killed and he himself, in order to save his own life, had to flee Khartoum. These events have had a profound effect on him and, whilst he agrees to take the case, he does so without enthusiasm. In fact, he has little enthusiasm for anything, although this does not prevent him from pursuing the investigation meticulously, even when it becomes clear that his inquiries are fraught with danger. Apart from Sad Hanafi himself, who clearly cannot be trusted, he encounters a dubious film producer, with whom Adil was associated, his failing team coach, clearly anxious about his job, and a Russian gangster who has his own reasons for seeing that the truth does not come to light. The author takes great care in presenting these characters and uses significant detail to bring them to life. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that, far from being the 'star' that the advertising media had made of him, Adil is a fairly ordinary individual, concerned with his image and the money it brings him, and not even a particularly gifted footballer.

In one sense it could be said that the really important character in the novel is the city of Cairo itself. We are shown the ordinary Egyptian poor who have barely enough to eat and who live in slums where disease lurks. Shops are frequently merely holes in the wall. The atmosphere is polluted by traffic and is made even more unbearable by the heat. These conditions are allowed to exist because government is corrupt. In fact, corruption is everywhere, particularly in the police. We are shown, on the other hand, a brand new building project by the sea, designed for tourists who laze in deck chairs or dangle their feet in the swimming pool whilst eating their fill. Such is the power of the author in describing the wretched living conditions within the city that the fate of Adil seems at times almost irrelevant and the novel has the air of a powerful social commentary.

Bilal's skill, however, means that this aspect of the novel does not cause any loss of interest in the plot itself. Markana moves from place to place, interviewing - almost always sympathetically - those people likely to be able to shed light on the disappearance of Adil, and painstakingly building up a picture of him. Towards the end the action speeds up as Markana begins to run into the dangers that were always waiting for him. He manages to overcome them but only just and with not too much in the way of heroics. Then, just when it appears he has solved the case a surprise occurs and Markana's feeling that his search and that of the murdered Liz Markham were, in fact, connected is proved to be correct in a surprising way. This is a crime novel but it is much more than that and it can be recommended to the reader who is prepared to be patient and to appreciate how the events fit into their geographical context.

Arnold Taylor is a retired Examinations Board Officer, amateur writer and even more amateur bridge player.

Reviewed by Arnold Taylor, March 2012

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