Bilal, Parker - 'Dogstar Rising'
Cairo, 2001. An angel has been sighted, so people say, on the rooftops and balconies of the poor part of town - the Angel of Imbaba. Some believe, after the brutal child killings with their victims tortured and mutilated, that the angel has come to them in their hour of need. Meanwhile Makana, private investigator, ex-policeman and Sudanese refugee, is working undercover at Blue Ibis Tours. He is trying to find out who sent the boss a threatening letter, if you can call an obscure Quranic quotation threatening. Makana has taken the job as a favour to the son of an old friend, a lawyer who unlike Makana failed to leave Sudan alive. The boy is in love with the daughter of the travel agency's proprietor and hopes to make a good impression by recommending Makana for the job. For himself Makana is unimpressed by the couple's relationship and even more so when he meets an old acquaintance, Mo Damazeen, in their company. Back in Sudan Damazeen had been an outspoken artist, a radical, and a friend of Makana's wife but Makana now suspects Damazeen sits in tight with the Sudanese regime. At the run-down Blue Ibis agency Makana sets about getting to know his fellow staff members and the office's mysterious alpha-male seems intent on getting to know Makana, appropriating him as a driver for his numerous rendezvous around the city. Makana also befriends the receptionist, Meera, who seems out of place in the agency. She explains that she is married to a controversial scholar of Arabic. A popular TV imam denounced her husband both for his scholarly interpretations and for his marriage to a Coptic Christian. Meera was working as a teacher but both she and her husband lost their jobs as a result of the imam's pronouncement. So now she works at Blue Ibis Tours. She tells Makana that she knows about the threatening letter and that the agency received three letters. But she kept the other two - because Meera believes that the letters are meant for her.
Parker Bilal is the pseudonym of award-winning British Sudanese writer Jamal Mahjoub. In a recent Guardian interview he explains that the name "Parker" is a tribute to his crime-fiction obsessed Bradford grandmother and "Bilal" is for his Nile river-boat driver grandfather. After several attempts at writing thrillers which never saw the light of publication, he finally found his own man and setting with Sudanese private investigator Makana and the streets of Cairo. DOGSTAR RISING is the second in his "Makana" series. Its events take place a year or so after those in the first book, THE GOLDEN SCALES, and during the months running up to the attack on the World Trade Centre in September 2001. Some of the characters from the first book make a welcome return in this one and Makana himself continues to live his life on the edge of mainstream Cairo society, on his ramshackle houseboat on the Nile, and making his way using his policeman's skills from his lost life in Sudan.
With the latest book Bilal seems to focus more sharply on the brewing social conflicts within Egyptian society under Mubarak's regime. Imbaba is a poor district that houses both Copts and Muslims alike. The local Coptic church enclosure has seen attacks but its priest is determined to make the place rise again. He continues to work with the neighbourhood's homeless street-kids, both Copt and Muslim, and runs a boxing club there. It is amongst this group of kids that the killer finds his victims, a fact which stokes up local anti-Christian feeling. When brutality and death come close to Makana himself, with the subtle undercurrents of political allegiances and the uncertainty of whom to trust, you join Makana on a floating platform as precarious as the deck of his houseboat. Bilal writes an exciting crime story that absorbs and informs as well as entertains. Accompanied by Makana's dry humour and pragmatic approach to human nature, he opens a window onto the life of the outsider, the man of another race, one who can never go home but must make a living and a life from where he stands. I enjoyed THE GOLDEN SCALES and Bilal's second book DOGSTAR RISING is a similar treat. With the good news that Parker Bilal has more books planned and that the third is already written, I can rest easy that there is plenty more of Makana to come.
Lynn Harvey, England