Michael Pearce is a mystery writer, specialising in stories located in colourful places and filled with exotic characters.
Growing up himself in North Africa, he has been most successful with his Mamur Zapt series, the Mamur Zapt being a peculiar position in the 1920s British administration over occupied Egypt, referred to as a political officer and essentially head of the secret police.
Pearce makes one Captain Owen his Mamur Zapt, and his novels are an unusual blend of mystery and police procedural, as the Mamur Zapt investigates a crime or occurence which has political dimensions and the possibility of destabilising the uneasy political situation of 1920s Cairo.
It’s a great idea for a series, Pearce has written sixteen of them to date, the last coming out in 2008, I’ve now read three. The first two, The Night of the Dog and The Return of the Carpet, were both excellent. Highly evocative in terms of time and place, interesting in their depiction of the political difficulties of a very different world as the Mamur Zapt deals with the Egyptian civilian police, disaffected French former colonial interests, local nationalists and religious groups. The third, The Donkey-Vous, unfortunately worked less well for me. Two out of three’s not bad, so I’ll likely give the fourth a try some time, but it will probably be quite some time before I do.
In The Donkey Vous, an elderly Frenchman with family links through marriage to the French president is kidnapped from the terrace at Shepheard’s Hotel, the most prestigious hotel in Cairo and therefore the best known terrace in Cairo. The kidnapping appears to be for money, but despite all the bystanders nobody saw it happen, and such a person taken from such a place cannot help but be political. The Mamur Zapt, reluctantly, is brought in to investigate the disappearance.
Essentially, this is then a locked room mystery. Ok, the locked room is a crowded terrace facing an exceptionally busy street in the heart of a major city, but the point remains the same, there’s no way that the crime in question could have occurred at such a location.
The problem with the novel, however, is a simple one. Outside the terrace is a stand of donkey-boys, boys who hire out their donkeys to tourists. The kidnapping could not have occurred without them witnessing it, Captain Owen after initial interviews is convinced that they are lying when they plead ignorance, so is Mahmoud, investigator for the Parquet, the Egyptian justice ministry and a friend of Captain Owen’s.
As the donkey-boys won’t talk, Captain Owen, Mahmoud and others spend the next couple of hundred pages making fairly fruitless investigations into a seemingly impossible crime before they find a way to get the donkey-boys to open up, along the way running into problems with rival bidders for public works contracts, army sensitivities to the potential involvement of sectarian groups, and political infighting and gamesmanship. The trouble is, all this depends on one assumption, that the head of the secret police and the Egyptian investigator, both operating in 1920s Cairo, wouldn’t simply have the boys rounded up and beaten until they told everything they knew. If they did do that, however, the novel would last about 30 pages.
Pearce is good at bringing 1920s Cairo to life, the book is filled with descriptive passages, indeed every other page comes with another rich and exotic description (possibly too many, a friend of mine abandoned the book around page 50, having overdosed on them). Here Captain Owen visits an influential member of Egyptian society:
Owen walked in past the two eunuchs, named according to custom after precious stones or flowers, across a crunching gravel courtyard where cats dozed in the shade of the palms and in through a heavy wooden outer door. When he came to the inner door which led directly into Samira’s apartment he stopped and called out “Ya Satir – O Discoverer” – (one of the ninety-nine names of God), the conventional warning to ladies that a man is coming and they must veil. He heard scrambling inside and as he opened the door saw a female slave disappearing up the stairs to “warn” the Princess. He realized he must be the first male guest to arrive.
Here we have a typical street scene from the novel, from in front of the Shepheard’s terrace:
The street was brimming. As well as the usual hawkers of stuffed crocodiles, live leopards, Nubian daggers, Abyssinian war-maces, Smyrna figs, strawberries, meshrebiya tables and photograph frames, Japanese fans and postage stamps, sandalwood workboxes and Persian embroideries, hippopotamus-hide whips and tarbooshes, and Sudanese beads made in Manchseter and the little scarabs and images of men and gods made for the Tombs of Pharoahs but just three thousand years too late; as well as the sellers of sweets and pastry and lemonade and tea who habitaully blocked up the thoroughfare; as well as the acrobats and tumblers, jugglers and performing ape managers; as well as the despairing arabeah-drivers and the theatrical donkey-boys and the long line of privileged vendors stretching the whole length of the terrace – a swarm of Albanians, Serbs, Montenegrins, Georgians, and Circassians had suddenly arrived in front of the hotel to show off their boots.
They were very proud of their boots and had come along, in traditional national dress with a few props such as guns, daggers and swords, to exhibit them to the tourists to be photographed.
Lavish description is of course much of the point, fans of historical mystery novels read them as much – perhaps more – for the sense of time and place as for the mystery itself. The ability to lose oneself in another country, another period, is much of the draw. Where it becomes problematic is where, as here, the plot is insufficiently robust so that one is left with little but the period flavour.
The novel also contains several scenes in which Owen tries to question locals, and ends up in a meandering and gently humorous conversation as his desire to be direct and the Arab custom of arriving at conclusions circuitously and with much discussion come at odds, in a form of mild culture clash. I would quote one, but by their nature they tend to be protracted, and can extend over several pages. They’re well enough written, though I did struggle slightly to tell any of the Arab characters (other than Mahmoud, the policeman) apart by their dialogue since they are all prone to much the same sorts of pleasantries and asides.
Pearce’s Cairo is a place filled with good natured people, good natured though perhaps slightly scheming Frenchmen, good natured but perhaps overly suspicious British soldiers, good natured but overly garrulous and emotional Egyptians, good natured but traditionally minded Greeks, a good natured but forgetful retired elderly Englishman who may have seen something and his good natured but excitable daughter. Everyone is basically a bit of a good egg, save one young army officer who comes across as a bit stupid and a bit bigoted, but even he does no real harm.
That’s fine, the word “cosy” is actually used for a certain subgenre of the mystery novel, but I did start to long for an elderly Flashman to show up and give them all a good kicking.
And that’s about it, I struggle to say a great deal more. Pearce knows his stuff, his 1920s Egypt is a convincingly real place, it’s just the people and their ubiquitous niceness that lets down ultimately both the realism and the plot. Fans of historical mysteries would likely enjoy the first two a great deal, I certainly did, but here the plot depends on the niceness, which brings it to the foreground and makes it evident how incredible it actually is.
On an unrelated note, Planet of Slums continues to be a good but slow read, I’ll be trying to break the back of it this weekend so I can stop feeling guilty about it’s unfinished status.