Parker Bilal, June 2016, 464 pages, Bloomsbury Publishing, ISBN: 1408864487
Reviewed by Lynn Harvey.
(Read more of Lynn's reviews for Euro Crime here.)
Cairo, December, 2005
The young brother and sister are awake in the tiny sealed room; dark, it smells of oil and dust and they can hear the sounds of daytime Cairo outside. They had been so close to freedom after their escape from the soldiers and the murders. Travelling with just each other, they had reached shelter only to be snatched into this darkness and fear of death – their only hope of exit a small hatch high up in the wall. Jonah urges his sister to climb up on his back towards it. Voices approach and Beatrice manages to haul herself up but as she turns back to reach for her brother the door bursts open. “Run,” he calls out to her, “Run.”
Makana is watching the sky lighten. After another sleepless night he wonders how much longer he can live on this decrepit houseboat. Every bone aches as he smokes a cigarette and considers his latest case: the apparent disappearance of a young engineering student who has not been in touch with his family for three weeks. His thoughts are interrupted by his landlady's daughter who drags him along the river bank to where a fisherman has hooked a grisly catch, a severed head in a sack. Police Inspector Okasha arrives with his posse of uniforms and brings with him the formidable Chief Forensic Officer, Doctora Siham. She pinpoints a scar pattern on the victim's forehead as belonging to one of Makana's fellow Sudanese, although from the South. Okasha remarks that if the victim is from South Sudan he can't see anyone rushing to solve the mystery, the South Sudanese are not popular in Egypt right now, with their protesters encamped in Maidan Square for months, demanding their right to asylum.
Makana returns to his current investigation and visits the university where the missing youth was studying. There, he begins to experience what will become a familiar pattern in this case – hostility and suspicion of his Sudanese origins. He is used to being an outsider in Egypt but now, with international eyes drawn to Darfur, he finds an extra hostility reserved for his being North Sudanese and an oppressor of the South…
Parker Bilal is the crime pseudonym of British-Sudanese writer Jamal Mahjoub who writes fiction and non-fiction under his own name and whose current project is a contemporary history of the North-South Sudanese conflict. CITY OF JACKALS is the fifth novel in his gripping “Makana Mystery” series, set in Egypt in the years leading up to the Arab Spring and featuring Sudanese exile Makana struggling to make a living as a private investigator and battling his own demons that rise from his haunted and hunted past. The titles in the series often conjure Ancient Egyptian iconography and CITY OF JACKALS introduces us to the realm of Anubis, the dog-headed god who prepares his subjects for the underworld – for the life to come. This is Egypt on the brink of revolt, Mubarak has been elected back into power but protest is in the air. Makana's search for the missing student starts to uncover a life unknown to the rest of the young man's family. But at the same time he cannot forget the murdered Sudanese whose head was found in the river and he works to identify the boy and to find his murderer or murderers. The search takes him into the churches, camps and missions of the Sudanese refugees where he encounters Christian missionary zeal alongside open hostility.
In CITY OF JACKALS Makana seems to be at some kind of exhausted cross-roads himself, the consequence of which is a darker, more conflicted atmosphere. The wit is still there but it is more subdued. The hospitable suppers at his favourite restaurant are less frequent. Makana's journalist friend Sami is also adrift – in his marriage and his job; even Makana's eager young helper, Aziza, now in her teens, seems angry at the hopelessness of her ambitions. However Bilal still conjures the living detail of Cairo, the street scenes, smells, vivid, rounded characters and the layers of a crowded city steeped in human machinations, corruption and hope. Bilal's writing remains sure and Makana's investigation sweeps towards an exciting, physically dramatic conclusion – a trademark Makana finish. You must always hang on to your hat when following the determined Makana's chase to the finish, so press that hat firmly on your head and follow him, you won't regret it.
Lynn Harvey, June 2016.