In 2012 I read The Golden Scales by Parker Bilal (pseudonym for Jamal Mahjoub), and here to follow-up is the second novel in the series, Dogstar Rising. The first novel in the series introduced us to Makana, a down-on-his luck PI, former policeman, a refugee from Sudan who now lives in Egypt. Dogstar Rising finds Makana, who’s a bottom feeder in Egypt society, still having trouble making ends meet, still mulling over his past life in Sudan (which ended with the loss of his wife and only child) and taking a case for the owner of Blue Ibis Tours. The case comes to Makana via Talal, the son of an old friend from Sudan. Talal is courting ‘Bunny,’ the daughter of the man who owns the tour company.
Blue Ibis flew tourists down to the Valley of the Kings on whirlwind tours of the hot and dusty resting places of long-dead pharaohs. They took them on camel treks into the Sinai Desert in the footsteps of Moses, before depositing them on a beach by the Red Sea where they could roast nicely for a few days and feed themselves on lavish buffets or dive in clear blue water among coral reefs. The nights shook to the uninhibited pulse of dance music that provided them with the hedonistic lifestyles they associated with being on holiday. They ran them up and down the Nile in luxury boats with belly dancers and live folklore shows every evening. The food was all prepared to European standards so that nothing as inconvenient as indigestion might come between those and their once in a lifetime experience.
That passage gives a good sense of the author’s slightly sardonic tone–along with the implication that tourists float on the surface of Egyptian life and rarely see what is going on underneath the fabricated veneer of the lavish holiday experience.
The owner of Blue Ibis Tours, a very harassed character, Mr Faragalla, has received what he perceives to be a threatening letter which contains a quote from the Quran. To Makana the quote seems harmless, but to Faragalla, the quote is a threat for bringing foreigners into the country–foreigners who “drink wine and beer … and throw off their clothes and display themselves publicly.” Although Makana doesn’t see much harmful in the letter, he takes the case, posing as an efficiency expert who’s been hired to pull the struggling company out of the red.
In another story thread, the bodies of young mutilated boys appear in the city, and the victims are from the thousands of homeless children living on the street. They appear to have been kept captive and tortured over a period of time. The deaths stir religious fervor, and in a country divided by intense feelings, the murders become a rallying call for Sheikh Waheed, a “controversial iman” who blames the city’s minority Coptic community. While there’s a political value to be gained from stormy rhetoric regarding the callous murders of homeless children, there’s also something extremely poignant about the fact that these children are murdered in obscurity. No one claims them–no one except a priest who seems to have known all the dead boys at one time or another as they sheltered temporarily at his church.
Religious fanaticism doesn’t just concern the case of the dead children. Makana makes friends with Meera, an employee of the Blue Ibis Tour company. She seems somehow out of place amongst the disorganized mess, and she too is a victim of religious intolerance. Makana, whose early life was marred and permanently shaped by fanaticism, knows just how dangerous it is to become an object of retaliation, and yet he seems powerless to stop forces determined to stir hatred.
Bilal brings Cairo alive, and his interpretation of social, religious, and political life in Egypt is fascinating, and in this second book in the series, the introduction of a dying tourist business meshed very well with the idea of minority integration. If you like your foreign crime to reflect the particular turmoil of the country in which it’s set, then the Makana series is for you. The first book in the series The Golden Scales (and I suggest reading this first as the second volume contains several repeat characters) managed to balance Makana’s private life with the case he investigated, and some of this private life included scenes of his past in Sudan. Any series character needs to have a private life to keep us interested and reading, and I’ve read books in which the balancing act of private life vs. investigation has been perfect while in others the private life of the series character dominates or even stagnates. In Dogstar Rising, there doesn’t seem to be enough quite forward motion in Makana’s private life. He still lives in the same place and has the same friends (and that’s all very enjoyable), and while there’s a major development regarding Makana’s past, somehow it’s not quite enough. It’s a problem: Makana is a widower, haunted by his past, and tormented by his decisions. This results in his inability to move on, and yet, Makana, as a character, will have to move on and develop. It’s a challenge, and one I hope the author tackles in his next entry in the Makana series.