Parker Bilal is the pen name for Jamal Mahjoub–an author who has already published a number of novels, and now with this pen name, the author introduces an intriguing new character for what promises to be an excellent series. The Golden Scales is set in Cairo, and the protagonist is low-rent PI Makana. Makana, a political refugee, just barely manages to eke out a living while haunted by memories of his past life as a Sudanese police inspector.
It’s 1998, and shabbily-dressed Makana lives on an awama–a type of tiny ramshackle houseboat which in reality is a “flimsy plywood construction nailed haphazardly on to a rusty pontoon.” He’s behind on his rent and his landlady, Umm Ali is growing impatient. He’s lived a sort of twilight existence working the occasional PI job now for seven years after fleeing from Khartoum.
Usually his clients thought they could get him to work a little more cheaply and discreetly than a local investigator might. Still, in recent months he had found himself struggling. The work had dried up, no one had any money, and Makana was faced with the fact that if things did not improve soon he would have to think about finding some other kind of gainful employment. His needs were not excessive, his one vice being tobacco; other than that he lived the kind of frugal existence that would have shamed a wandering Sufi.
Luck seems to turn to Makana’s favour when he receives an unexpected visit from an employee of Saad Hanafi–one of Egypt’s richest men. Hanafi has his finger in almost every conceivable industry–real estate, construction, and he even owns a wildly popular football team known as The DreemTeem. A number of legends surround the mystery of Hanifi’s ugly past, and while it’s difficult to ascertain just how much is true and how much is fabricated, it is clear that as a young man, Hanafi was involved in major criminal enterprises. These days, however, Hanafi has gilded his reputation with generosity and “The DreemTeem was part of his PR makeover.” Hanafi has discovered a unique way to gain popular support in a country wracked with horrendous poverty:
In this world, it seemed, if you wanted to assure yourself of a seat in the temple among the great and godly, owning your own football team greatly improved your chances. And whereas most teams were associated with one particular part of the city or another, the Hanafi DreemTeem represented the aspirations of millions. This was what he really offered : a dream that everyone could share. In a draw held once a month, he gave away an apartment to some fortunate person. On television you could watch them screaming and fainting as they were given the news. They wailed and howled and fell to the ground. They tore at their hair, and jumped up and down. People supported Hanafi’s team because they wanted something to believe in.
Makana is summoned to Hanafi’s palatial home because the DreemTeem‘s star player, Adil Romario is missing. Just as there’s a legend about Hanafi’s ill-gotten gains, there’s a legend about Adil’s success which involves a story in which Hanafi discovered Adil as an urchin on the streets of Cairo. Hanafi claims he loves Adil like a son, but that after a row, Adil went missing. Makana’s job is to track Adil down and make him return. To Makana, something doesn’t feel right about the case, but he needs the money and takes the job.
Makana’s search for Adil takes him to the DreemTeem‘s manager, a corrupt Italian with mafia connections, Adil’s love interest the actress Lulu Hamra, and to the shabby film studios belonging to Salim Farag. Adil had an ambition to leave the pressures of the DreemTeem behind and become an actor instead. He certainly has the looks for it, but film clips at Faraga Films reveal a lack of talent. And then there’s a predatory Russian in the background. What is his involvement in Adil’s disappearance?
As Makana hunts for Adil, he meets Liz Markham, a British woman who’s searching for her daughter who disappeared in Cairo 17 years earlier. Makana, who mourns for his own lost daughter, experiences a moment of empathy with Liz, and later, he becomes convinced that the mystery of the missing Markham child is somehow connected to the disappearance of Adil Romario.
While Makana investigates the disappearance of Hanafi’s prize football player, an embedded narrative slowly reveals Makana’s past in Sudan.
Then one day the country awoke to find a new regime had arrived, announcing that the solution to all their problems lay in a more rigorous embrace of Islam. The self-styled government of National Salvation promised to overturn the hierarchies of class and ethnicity to make all equal under the sun of religious faith.
Makana’s memories reveal a country plunged into religious fanaticism, and this story line, slowly parcelled out over the course of the novel, reveals just how those who formerly enforced Sudan’s laws are subverted and corrupted. In his role as a Sudanese police inspector, Makana was supposed to investigate murders, but when purges and murders are committed by the people running the country, he finds himself in an untenable situation.
Makana’s department was placed under the command of Major Idris, a stiff-necked military man who not only knew nothing about police work, but didn’t want to know. He didn’t have time for it. To Major Idris, it was all a matter of filling out the right forms and keeping his nose clean. A party member, he was on his way up. Nothing else mattered. Catching criminals was certainly not a priority. Praying was a priority. Keeping his superiors happy was a priority. With Idris came a flood of similar types, Makana had no idea where from. He had never seen them before. They seemed more concerned with flushing out potential critics of the regime than pursuing law breakers.
It wasn’t just the formalities which had changed, it was the very nature of crime itself. You picked up a victim by the side of the road with a bullet in his head, or a man with water in his lungs lying in the middle of the desert, and you asked yourself, how could this have happened? Nobody really wanted to know. As Major Idris reminded him more than once: “You’re a smart man, Makana. Smart enough to know that if I tell you these things are out of our hands then there is no need for you to worry yourself further.”
For those who like their crime fiction to take place in foreign locations, The Golden Scales holds great appeal. Not only is there plenty of local colour and a strong sociopolitical context, but the story takes us from the unrest in Sudan, to the marketplaces of Cairo, to the Pyramids, a swanky casino which bans locals, and the private estates of the fabulously wealthy. Throughout the tale, we see a nervous Cairo determined to facedown Islamic fundamentalists and reassure tourists in spite of the ever-present threat of political instability. In The Golden Scales–which is, by the way–a reference to justice, the author has created a unique PI–a character whose story is yet to be completed. It’s refreshing to read a tale of a PI who’s not alcoholic and not unhappily married for once.
In spite of the story’s serious political issues, there’s a light sense of humour which balances the tale. Here’s Makana making an observation about Hanafi’s tacky decor:
Two giant glazed ceramic leopards stood guard by the entrance. A reminder that when you had all the money in the world, you didn’t need taste.
Review copy from publisher.