Tuesday, January 04, 2011
1. The Mamur Zapt and the Return of the Carpet by Michael Pearce
Some blog somewhere recommended the books of Michael Pearce. I simply wrote down the two titles recommended and his name on the list I keep in my pocket. I have completely forgotten where the recommendation came from. I'd like to rectify that if I could, so if it happens to be any of the vast audience who reads this, throw me a comment.
The Mamur Zapt is the head of the British Secret Service in Egypt when it was under Britain's control in the early decades of the twentieth century. The Return of the Carpet is the first in a series of 16 books about the Welsh army captain, Gareth Cadwallader Owens, who fills this role of intrigue, politics and investigation in Cairo. I really don't know much else about the pedigree of these books, besides the brief bio in the back about the author, who grew up in Egypt and went back there to teach.
The Return of the Carpet refers to an annual ceremony where a holy piece of thread comes to Cairo from Mecca. The book starts out with a wealthy and powerful politician surviving an amateurish assassination attempt. We slowly learn about the complex politics (the fundamental basis of which is that Britain is ostensibly on there as an advisor to the government, but actually has the army and is basically in charge, but this is only the beginning; it really is complex) of the situation. Furthermore, the Mamur Zapt is supposed to be only responsible for intelligence and has no mandate to investigate. There are several other agencies with which me must negotiate, manipulate and politic to get things happening. If you like byzantine state politics and inter-departmental intrigue, this book does those things very well. It's great to see Owen make plays against obstinate army sub-commanders or Syrian consul generals as well as to watch him realize he has been manipulated.
What it also does well is describe the rich physical and social milieu that is 1920's Cairo. It was a crazy melting pot and Pearce really brings it home for the reader. This is a period and region I am not too familiar with but have always been drawn to (probably due to those early Tintins), so I will definitely continue along with this series as I find new volumes. The plot itself was a bit dry and not super-interesting to me at certain points along the way, but there is enough promise there that I have the feeling other stories will be more engaging.