Tuesday, May 1, 2012
The Cairo Diary by Maxime Chattam
I like everything about the concept of this novel. There are intertwined mysteries, one set in 1920s Egypt with a male British detective investigator and one set in 21st century France with a strong female protagonist who works in a forensic science unit. The first mystery infects the second, though the threads never become tangled. This is handled by the finding of the old diary of a detective in Cairo by a French woman seeking refuge in a remote and ancient stone monastery that is, if not neglected exactly, not easily renovated, which contributes to feelings of abandonment and heightening one’s sense of doom.
The Cairo mystery was clearly the most urgent, and the best part of the book, should you get there, is the ending. The writing was perhaps a little uneven, and the author inserted jarring references (like music, clothing types, or naming the author Agatha Christie) which tended to pull the reader from alignment to distance. Additionally, when I began the mystery, I did not realize that the author was a man. That might explain why the female characters seemed colder and more distant than I would ordinarily expect, as a woman. Chattam did well, but there was something not quite spot-on about his characterizations that kept me conscious of my role as reader and bystander.
This reader had only a couple of weak possibilities for solving the damnably gruesome and elusive central case. I note here that Europeans seem to have a greater tolerance for specificity when describing horrors, and as a result I found myself squirming uncomfortably as the tortures and degradations wrecked upon the victims of crimes in early 20th century Cairo were described in fulsome detail. I still cannot quite see why it was necessary for the author to pause in the forward action of the mystery to describe truly despicable acts in such detail.
All that being said, the concept was excellent. Writers take note. I’m sure Chattam is being celebrated already, but judicious editing will bring him into the mainstream.
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