Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Golden Scales by Parker Bilal

The Golden Scales: A Makana Mystery
"The light sand swirled across the bare tarmac like smoke, as if the wind were intent on swallowing up the road, wiping away man’s futile endeavors to tame nature and return this place to the wilderness it was meant to be.”

This quote comes in Chapter 33, but in some way it carries with it the sense of the whole novel. “Off to their right was evidence of what the future held in store for the city as it expanded, growing like some unsightly tumor into the unblemished desert. Clusters of buildings scattered along the roadside provided housing for workers employed in the isolated industrial complexes build by the government to relieve pressure on the capital. Eventually all these dots would be joined up into one big sprawl…the warm desert air blew through the open windows, bringing with it the scent of lost kingdoms…”

A luxury housing complex was being built in the desert, meant to be self-sufficient with golf courses, and swimming pools, surrounded by perimeter fences and security guards, but “The wind had picked up and sand had built into drifts that covered the road almost completely in places...the ochre landscape featured windblown and withered palms with fronds snapping in the air like switches, and the barbed wire hummed in the air as if charged with electricity.” Sounds a little like the uncompleted basement tombs that crater previously undeveloped Irish seaside vistas described by Tana French in Broken Harbor. Overbuilding and underthinking: two common characteristics of unreasonably optimistic real estate financiers around the world in the last decades, even in Cairo.

This is a politically astute, perceptive, and atmospheric thriller police procedural mystery set in Cairo. One actually wants to shade one’s eyes from the sun, and spit the sand from one’s tongue. The mystery is bi-fold and the two pieces appear connected. A British woman is tortured and murdered, and a famous soccer star goes missing. Various moneyed factions are warring for turf, the Islamists are seeking control over the more secular police force, and the foreigner is the daughter of a member of Britain’s House of Lords. Bilal uses a big canvas and paints Cairo as the international city it is. Asking around yields tiny clues that finally add up.

If I had any complaint, it would be that there were too many words. But I like the view we get of modern Egypt and its stressors, the food, the desert. I look forward to more of Parker Bilal. He writes with sophistication, assurance, and deep sense about living on earth.

Parker Bilal, pseudonym for Britain-born Jamal Mahjoub, has written several novels before this popular series, among them Travelling with Djinns ( Viajando con djinns) and The Drift Latitudes as well as historical novels about major moments in political or scientific upheaval. He is not a lightweight. There is depth in his portrayal of a Sudanese national in Egypt as the key character for this series. This is the first of a series, so you may want to start here, or try one of his stand-alone novels.

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