Chattam, Maxim - 'The Cairo Diary' (translated by Susan Dyson)
Marion, a secretary in the Medico-legal Institute and morgue in Paris has witnessed something so dangerous that her life is in danger. The French CIA-equivalent spirit her away to a safe house which happens to be on Mont-Saint-Michel where she is to be looked after by the members of the spiritual community until it's safe for her to return home.
She's not been there long when she discovers a note left in her room with a riddle, a mathematical puzzle which takes her out in the stormy weather to one of the towers where she finds another note, welcoming her to the island.
Puzzled by this, she puts the matter to one side. She agrees to go with one of the 'brothers' to Avranches to help catalogue some collections in the library and whilst working, she comes across an old diary, written in English, belonging to Jeremy Matheson an inspector in British-occupied Cairo in the 1920s.
Intrigued she sneaks it back to Mont-Saint-Michel and soon is reading it at every opportunity. The diary recounts a horrific series of murders of children which Matheson is investigating. The locals believe it to be the work of a ghul as such a figure has been seen in the area of the murders and Matheson's partner, the Egyptian Azim, works this angle whilst Matheson quickly decides that the killer is of a more human persuasion and targets one person in particular.
Marion is soon informed that some-one knows that she has the diary and wants it back and she wonders what is the link between the events of nearly 80 years ago in Egypt and present-day Mont-Saint-Michel?
I had high hopes for THE CAIRO DIARY which were dashed somewhat. Several things annoyed me, some minor and one major. One - that Marion could believe that someone aged nearly 110 would still be alive (possible but extremely rare I imagine) and that she wouldn't have recognised a person of that age on the Mount. Two – don't French libraries have public access to the Internet? She visits Avranches library with the diary and checks old periodicals for information on the story in the diary instead of the Internet. Three - and the worst - is the purple prose used to describe the weather and sea around the Mount, which is very distracting:
"Down below, the sea had left stretches of water in its nocturnal wake, puddles with absinthe-colored reflections, some of which reflected misshapen images back to the skies".
In spite of some of the dodgy descriptions the sense of place for both settings and eras comes across well; Mont-Saint-Michel is particularly creepy especially with the storm weather hitting it whilst you can feel the heat in dusty Cairo. Jeremy's tale is quite gripping whilst Marion's is less so and her island location seems to have been chosen so that she has no access to the internet to verify the story in the diary. Be warned that Jeremy's tale is quite explicit at times detailing the horrors inflicted on the victims, one description in particular made me queasy and this graphicness seems completely unnecessary.
I did struggle a bit with this one. The last 80 pages flew by but the ending left me very disappointed and made the previous pages seem rather pointless.
Karen Meek, England
More European crime fiction reviews can be found on the Reviews page.