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14 April 2014

Parker Bilal: The Ghost Runner

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A very different and evocative mystery
Congratulations to Parker Bilal for giving us a gripping, skillfully written different kind of mystery. This mystery is set in Cairo and Siwa, a small oasis based town near the border with Libya, just after 7/11 and the start of the war on terror. It features private investigator Makana, a former Sudanese police inspector who fled to Egypt after a fierce regime change.

Makana is just making a living as a PI in Egypt when he gets commissioned by a top lawyer, Magdy Ragab, to find the killer of Karima Khyer who he had been supporting. The most obvious suspect for the horrific arson is her father Musab Khyar, an unscrupulous gangster, smuggler and possible jihadist as an honour killing because he suspects that Karima is not his biological daughter. But at last report Musab is in political asylum in Denmark, surprisingly arranged by Rageb. Makana is helped by Zahra Sharif, an aid worker for women's rights who had also befriended Karima and knows a lot more about her family history.

To track down the background to Karima's death Makana travels to Siwa, a town renowned for dates, olive oil , some tourism and smuggling. In a remote small town environment Siwa looks after its own affairs in its own ways. Makana's questions are not welcomed, especially by Sergeant Hamama the current chief of police, until Hamana is faced with a murder and mutilation of the town's highest legal official, the Qadi. Out of his depth in a murder investigation Hamana does a deal to get Makana to help him. Despite this there are few people who remember Karima's family who are prepared to help him and in many cases they are downright unhelpful. Then another murder mutilation occurs and Hamana arrests a possible suspect who he is sure will end the case. Makana is not convinced that the murderer has been identified and his deal with Hamana collapses.

Bilal then spins us a very complex tale of deception, corruption and murder which envelopes and entwines itself throughout the community in Siwa. He gives us clues that get solved unexpectedly later in the book, one time very explosively. A phantom woman (the ghost runner) who may be associated with the killings is one of the clues. The final chapters are a well schemed mixture of the expected and the unexpected. Corruption, smuggling, drug and gun running, and greed to benefit from a big gas project abound.

The Ghost is written in elegant and descriptive prose rarely found in a popular mystery novel - James Lee Burke comes to mind in US mysteries. Bilal evokes new, exciting, different and dangerous settings for crime fiction which are a world away from from normal scenarios in the streets of the US and the UK. While the basic scenario is in a Muslim world this is mainly peripheral to the action but essential to the way that the main characters live and act. It is a different and very evocative mystery novel.

Parker Bilal was born in London and has lived at times in the UK, Sudan, Egypt, Denmark and currently in Barcelona. His life experiences fuel his writing and bring us to places and things that many of us will never visit or understand. This is a standalone novel in the Makana mysteries but I am sure that I will get to know more about Makana as I am now keen to read the first two books in the series. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to get a different perspective of the world through an entertaining, intelligent and thought provoking mystery novel.

My thanks to The Reading Room and the publisher for a copy of this book for my review.

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