Today's guest blog is by Parker Bilal the pseudonym of Jamal Mahjoub. Mahjoub has published seven critically acclaimed literary novels, which have been widely translated. So far he has written two books featuring his Sudanese detective Makana, The Golden Scales and Dogstar Rising. The third book The Ghost Runner is due out next year.
I often joke that it’s not so much a case of my turning to crime fiction as having always been trying to write it; I simply got side-tracked along the way and ended up in the mainstream. One of the first reviews of my work, actually a roundup by Zoë Heller in The Guardian eons ago, included the lines, ‘contains the bones of a knowing thriller.’ I should have taken the hint then. Instead it took me many years and several more books before I finally bit the bullet.
What do any of these categories mean, anyway? All writing contains elements of mystery. The writer creates tension through withholding or providing information. So much mainstream writing nowadays carries a hint of crime fiction. Either directly or indirectly. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas has sections that resemble a noir-ish conspiracy thriller alongside historical fiction and science fiction. The whole idea of keeping these genres strictly divided seems hopelessly artificial. I remember reading a story by J.L. Borges, The Circular Ruins, which felt like a hypnotic spell that swept you away. I memorised the first lines; ‘No one saw him disembark in the unanimous night. No one saw the bamboo canoe running aground on the sacred mud.’ What did it mean? What was it all about? I can’t tell you. You might say that it isn’t crime fiction, really, but it skips along the edge so closely that it almost spills over. The story remained an enigmatic mystery, raising more questions than answers. More importantly, it kept you gripped.
I first read those lines when I was a teenager. I had no idea who Borges was and it was only years later that I learned of the Argentinian writer’s fascination with Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton and detective fiction generally. He wrote a series of ‘policiacas’ with his friend Bioy Casales under the pseudonym H. Bustos Domecq. For some reason I always found crime writing more appealing than literary fiction. Writers such as Ian MacEwan or Martin Amis seemed to describe worlds that were keenly defined as places where someone like myself simply would not fit in. I found Conan Doyle’s London stranger and more inviting, rich with strange characters who carried the world with them in a certain way. Sherlock Holmes was the ultimate inside-outsider, being of society and yet not. Even Poirot, with his spats and hairnet, his funny accent, was appealing because he was an outsider, one who was so acutely aware of the habits and particularities of the English as to be able to immediately spot when something was amiss. Somehow these elements made made it easier for the characters to enter the imagination of this reader.
I read and re-read the novels of Alistair Maclean when I was young and I think what drew me in was the exotic settings of his novels. Vaccares. Where was that? What did it look like? The locations were always places that seemed out of the ordinary. Amsterdam, Budapest, a cruise ship in the Caribbean. One of my favourites was Desmond Bagely’s Running Scared, which opens heart-stoppingly with the narrator having just stabbed a man on a remote road somewhere in Iceland.
If there was one single person responsible for introducing me to crime fiction then it would have to be my grandmother, who was something of an avid reader herself. She occupied a little alcove in a big old house in North London. Fenced off with heavy damask drapes and crowded with glass bookcases that had been filled up long ago with neat rows of nice hardback editions. At some point the accumulation of books had spilled over onto the floor where they carried on accumulating like shells on a beach, stacked up in little walls around her bed. These paperbacks were an endless source of mystery to me. The lurid covers usually featured men holding guns, or women in tight skirts and high heels, trailing cigarette smoke from their fingers. They promised danger and sex and all that the world held in store. They were by authors like Margery Allingham and John Creasy along with Dorothy L. Sayers, Leslie Charteris and a handful of others. The England they described was very old fashioned, inhabited by dubious characters who seemed to straddle the line between good and bad, characters like the Baron, the Saint or the Toff, who wore a top hat and travelled by horse carriage. It didn’t seem all that strange to me, a boy who lived in a country where donkey carts and flowing white robes were commonplace.
Growing up in Khartoum, I would receive strange parcels from my grandmother in England. These would arrive wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. They were always detective novels, and usually by Agatha Christie. I was too young to appreciate them all and although I tried reading them I often ended up setting them aside until years later. Instead, I would try to work out what the stories were about from the picture on the cover. Later on I progressed to writers like Hammond Innes, Gavin Lyall, Michael Crichton, Helen MacInnes, Georges Simenon and the stories of Sjöwall and Wahlöö. Those books left a lasting impression on me. When I turned to crime fiction it felt like a logical step, as if these writers had been there all my life, waiting for me to catch up.
I began writing about Cairo back in the 1990s when I first encountered the exiled Sudanese community living there. This was just after a very brutal military/Islamist takeover in Sudan. Many people fled, including my parents. I was fascinated by the kind of limbo in which exiles existed, the inventive ways in which they recreated themselves and their customs and the difficulties they faced.
I was working on a long and complex novel at the time. Looking back, I can see now that it contains some of the elements of the character that would become Makana. That novel remains incomplete but the Cairo sections were my first attempt at describing the city. As the years went by and that novel refused to materialise, I found myself increasingly frustrated at not being able to use this material. Then, about ten years ago, I started to think about creating an alter ego, a pseudonym that would allow me to live a double life. I experimented with characters and locations, and plots. I think I wrote about three full length novels before I began working on what would become The Golden Scales. It took five years. Anyone who tells you crime fiction is easy is lying through their teeth, or deceiving themselves.
Cairo is a city that has been written about for centuries and yet it seems to continue to inspire. Once I had embarked on the first book I realised that it would take more than one novel to tell Makana’s story, and that of the city where he had landed. The timing of the first book was determined by history; it had to be not too long after the 1989 coup in Khartoum. Of course, like everyone else, I had no idea of the coming revolution in Egypt. By the time it came The Golden Scales was already written and as I watched, spellbound, those images from Tahrir Square, it occurred to me that I had a logical ending to the Makana series.
More information about Parker Bilal can be found on his website.