City of Jackals, by Parker Bilal, is the fifth book in the author’s Makana Investigation series, the third of which was longlisted for the Theakstons Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the Year Award. I had not read any of the earlier instalments but this lack did not impact my understanding. The story can be enjoyed standalone.
Set in modern day Cairo, where Private Investigator Makana lives on a rickety houseboat having been exiled from his native Sudan, the corruption, sexism and racial tensions of the area are in contrast to the inherent decency of the protagonist and many of his associates. The plot centres around the plight of refugees seeking asylum, and the potential for exploitation when the law is unequally invoked.
After a prologue describing two desperate people locked in a room and attempting to escape, the reader finds Makana on his houseboat smoking an early morning cigarette and ruminating on his latest assignment. A student at the local university has vanished and his concerned parents have engaged the investigator to find their son.
Makana’s musings are interrupted by his landlady’s daughter calling him to attend a situation on the riverbank. A fisherman has snagged a sack containing a severed head with markings that suggest it belonged to a man originally from Sudan. Cairo has a growing problem with refugees from the south and there are tensions as the local population resent their presence. Given the pressures on the law enforcement agencies, this victim’s demise is unlikely to be regarded as worthy of police resources. Makana is offered assistance from their pathologist, Doctora Siham, should he wish to look further into what has happened himself.
The search for the missing student leads Makana to a Christian church close to a makeshift refugee camp. Here he is introduced to a brother and sister who are offering a select few teenagers the opportunity to start a new life in the USA. The necessary health screening is supported by a private clinic which offers holistic treatments to the wealthy, many of whom come over specially from abroad.
When a road traffic accident reveals the body of another young man from South Sudan the various threads in Makana’s investigations begin to coalesce. He has his suspicions about the perpetrators of the crimes but their motive remains unclear. A breakthrough comes when another student makes a grotesque find in one of the many once oppulent but now abandoned buildings in the city. Makana realises that others are in danger and time is running out.
The denouement includes a chilling speech that vocalises a view that is worryingly widespread if rarely acknowledged.
“Think of it as something like an extension of natural selection. […] In a world of diminishing resources we live on because we can afford to do so. […] Do you really believe that nameless, forgotten refugees, people without a home, or a family, at the bottom of the food chain, as it were, that they really deserve a better fate?”
With the current refugee crisis in Europe this story is timely. It is also good to read something written from a Muslim perspective, and to be reminded that those raised in whatever religion may be disinterested in following its tenets and rituals. The challenge moderates face when living in a country teetering on the brink of civil collapse, being plundered by the privileged and threatened by radicals, was well evoked.
A taut and pacy work with an original voice this provided an enjoyable read even if, as a woman, I did feel some frustration with many of the characters’ attitudes. Life in Cairo is not presented in a positive light but it made for a fascinating backdrop. A worthy addition to the books I consider quality crime fiction.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Bloomsbury.