When I look back at my favourite crime/detection/ mystery reads over the years the only ones I reread are those with a strong sense of place. True, they also often have a charismatic main character, but from Frank Tallis’ psychoanalytic detective Max Liebermann in pre- First World War Vienna, to the 1990’s Shanghai of Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen, the Greenland and Denmark of Peter Hoeg’s Miss Smilla, and the pre- and post- World War 2 France of Simenon’s Maigret, their environment, the insight into a previously unknown world in place and time, is a great part of their fascination.
I was then delighted last week when mooching in my favourite Library at the Dock to find a book with an eye-catching cover of lurid gold and green with the title The Golden Scales and below that A Makana Mystery. The author’s name, Parker Bilal, was unfamiliar to me, although this book was published in 2012. Makana, I soon learned, is a former policeman from Khartoum, in the Sudan, living in political exile in the unstable Cairo of 1998.
Makana has no assured source of income, but sometimes picks up work as a private investigator, with friends who may be enemies, and enemies who can also do him a good turn at times. He has lost his family, and lives alone in a flimsy raft on the Nile which he rents from his landlady Umm Ali, who, when he gets too behind in his rent, pulls the plug on his electricity supply. The accommodation where she and her children live is only slightly better than his own.
They lived in a shack made of stencilled wooden crates and flattened jerrycans, that clung precariously to the crumbling embankment, rising up like a muddy wave from the water’s edge. The long, drooping branches of a huge eucalyptus tree curled down over them like a protective hand.
Soon he is summoned by Saad Hanafi, a former gangster become a rich and powerful businessman, and owner of the Dreem Teem football team. His living circumstances are ludicrously opulent.
The building itself was a blunt pinnacle of concrete and glass that seemed to hang in the air in the defiance of gravity. Vines and fronds draped the many tiered balconies, stacked up like verdant steps leading to the sky. They called to mind the hanging Gardens of Babylon or some other such ancient wonder.
But all is not well with Hanafi – his star football player has disappeared and the future of his business empire and in fact the whole country is threatened if this leaks out. He gives Makana a bundle of money and the task of finding his star. There are other threads in Makana’s story: a mother searching for a missing daughter, Islamic extremists, Russian gangsters after Hanafi’s empire. Makana meets a Sufi forger in the market, he eats delicious food at the café of his friend Aswani. He even manages to pay few bills and catch up on his back rent with the money he has been given. But it must be said he does not move fast in his search for Adil Romario, the missing footballer. He visits people, asks questions, wanders round the markets, has lunch, gets involved in another case, which of course turns out to be interwoven with the story of the missing footballer.
But this story is really about Makana’s suffering, of still trying to live with the memory of all he has lost:
For the last seven years Makana had been going through the slow process of learning to live again. In the manner of an invalid recovering after a bad accident, rediscovering the use of his limbs, learning the basics one step at a time, coming back to life, adjusting to his new existence as a nonentity.
I was drawn in by Makana’s story. He is a humble and authentic character. And he can still get the boot in quite effectively when he needs to. The book gives a good sense of life in Cairo for rich and poor. I have learned a quite a bit. But then I had a lot to learn. I didn’t even know where Khartoum was.
Parker Bilal has written another four books in the Makana series. He also writes fiction under his own name, Jamal Mahjoub,