What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Mystery Monday: When a literary novelist writes mysteries, the result proves magical

So, I promised that my return to blogging would be based on being critical; no cozy cheerleading here. Of course, I also pledged to be rigorously honest in my views and opinions. So if I now end up going all fangirl (horrible phrase, but the only one that possibly applies in the circumstances) in my first post, I'll take refuge by pointing to the second part of that pledge.

And just who, or what, is causing the excitement? It's the pending release of the fourth of what the author plans to be ten mysteries set in Egypt in the years leading to the events of the Arab Spring in 2011, The Burning Gates by Parker Bilal. But to understand the reason why I did a small dance of joy when I downloaded an advance review copy of this book (due in bookstores next February) from Bloomsbury via NetGalley), I have to rewind to early last year, when I picked up Bilal's first book in the series, The Golden Scales. 

From the first pages, I was hooked, as a desperate woman scours the streets of Cairo for her daughter. Flash forward, and the reader learns that Liza Markham, the woman, is still looking for the little girl, whom she hasn't seen since 1981, when she was four. And there is another missing person, too, this one of far more apparent importance to Cairo's powerbrokers, that of a young footballer and protegé of its shady, threatening owner, Saad Hanafi. Both of these mysteries land in the lap of Makana, a Sudanese political exile and former cop turned private investigator, living on the margins of Cairo society. But why would someone like Hanafi -- who has access to all the resources he could possibly want -- hire the likes of Makana to retrieve Adil, the  missing footballer? And what, beyond Makana's involvement, links the two cases?

This is set in Cairo of 1998, a city of which Mubarak has firm control but in which Makana's life is precarious. We learn slowly (at just the right time, in the right way) how it happened that he fled Khartoum and what happened to his wife and child during that traumatic flight; we also understand how that shapes his own view of the case and these other two missing children. Murder follows, and Makana's sense of justice is horrified. He pursues the case in the face of Egyptian oligarchs, Russian mafiosi and yes, Islamic militants.

What I loved about this series from the first book onward was the rich level of detail. An outsider, Makana will never be accepted in Cairo, and his life reflects that status. He even lives on a rickety, decaying houseboat moored to a bank of the Nile, making little effort to do more than exist in this exile's life until his cases engage him to the point where he becomes reckless in the pursuit of justice. Cairo, in lesser hands, would simply become a backdrop for this story, but instead emerges as another character in its own right. Makana's Cairo isn't just the souks where the tourists gawk at the merchandise for sale, but seedy little hotels, neighborhood cafes and tea shops, the ubiquitous traffic jams, the offices where underlings cater slavishly to powerful men. There's a pervasive sense of menace in the air.

You can read these as straightforward mysteries, but also as political novels. Parker Bilal doesn't just
write detective novels but also literary novels, under his "real" name, Jamal Mahjoub, several of which have examined broad political themes in Africa, so it's hardly surprising that if you scratch the surface of his "Makana" books -- excellent in their own right -- you'll find similar concerns lurking. A razor-sharp critique of political opportunism? Check. Politicians using and exploiting religious convictions in their own pursuit of power? Absolutely. If Makana's decaying houseboat home is always just about to vanish beneath the Nile's surface, Egyptian society as a whole -- however affluent it may look -- isn't in much better shape, as Bilal's novels point out.

The second novel, Dogstar Rising, once again sees Makana with two cases to solve. He has been hired to investigate apparent threats to the head of a dilapidated and dysfunctional travel agency, and, working undercover there, discovers that the thread leads to sectarian religious conflicts and some ugly past secrets. Sectarian conflicts are emerging elsewhere, however: the bodies of young boys -- mutilated -- are showing up in Cairo's alleyways, and it is all too easy for opportunists to point the finger of blame at the Coptic Christian community.

Early this year, I snapped up a copy of The Ghost Runner as soon as it was released in the UK -- I didn't want to wait to read it until it became available in the United States. It was a bit of a departure, literally: this time, Makana leaves the crowded, noisy streets of Cairo for the eerie quiet of Siwa, an oasis town. If you're thinking "oasis" as in "desert paradise", however, you may want to rethink... Makana is in pursuit of the truth behind the burning of a young woman, Karima, whose family roots lie in Siwa. Could her estranged father -- formerly a criminal, now a born-again jihadi -- have set fire to her to restore the family 'honor'? Siwa's citizens, however, don't want to give up their secrets and Mahjoub/Bilal himself confirms, in an interview with Publishers Weekly, that he saw Makana as riding into the remote community rather in the same way that the outsider in search of truth and justice shows up in a Western movie shot by Sergio Leone. Unsurprisingly, the outcome is a tremendously vivid literary equivalent of what you might have seen in one of those Westerns -- with a 'War on Terror' twist, since the novel is set in 2002.

Now I've got my hands on book #4, The Burning Gate, which may be my Thanksgiving reading treat for myself. Certainly, I can't imagine not eagerly snapping up each book in this series as soon as possible: there are some circumstances in which self control simply isn't a virtue, and this is one. I want to know how Makana fared after his misadventures in the desert. I want to know whether he'll ever find out what happened to his daughter, and how he'll fend off the next attempt by his Sudanese nemesis -- his former underling in the police department -- to coax him back into harm's way?

And another next step, of course, will have to be to seek out some of the works by Parker Bilal's alter ego, Jamal Mahjoub. Having read the first of John Banville's mysteries (written under the pseudonym of Benjamin Black) and having discovered Mahjoub/Bilal, I'm becoming convinced that this particular combination is a slam-dunk win -- especially for readers who prize great, atmospheric writing, impeccably suspenseful plots and compelling characters. And really, what more do you need in a great mystery?

Full disclosure: I received advance review copies of The Golden Scales and Dogstar Rising from the publishers via NetGalley, in exchange for my honest opinion. 

1 comment:

  1. Great to see you blogging again, Suzanne. The Golden Scales just landed on my Kindle!