Sep 5, 2012 § 5 Comments
Ashraf Farouk is a police lieutenant in Cairo. His job is to stop his countrymen fleecing the tourists, and he is good at it. He is also good at lining his own pockets.
Crime on his patch is a chaotic mix of ancient and modern: bogus moneychangers, rigged scales in the gold and silver shops, pickpockets and distraction thefts; but also drug dealing, pornography and the odd riot. Police equipment is state of the art – surveillance vans borrowed from the CIA (unfortunately not designed for the midday heat of Egypt); gas and rubber bullets for the riots. Farouk, though, prefers to crack heads with the unofficial teak truncheon he carries under his jacket.
Mark White’s stories are exotic and original, and he skirts cleverly round the comic opera clichés of the casbah while still giving a sense of a shambolic post-colonial world. Labyrinthine laws are supported by mind-numbing bureaucracy. Police are corrupt and accountable to no-one but themselves. Farouk presides over his squad like Gene Hunt over the Life on Mars CID crew.
These are not short stories in the literary sense. More like well-told smoking room yarns: linear, event-driven and generally with a small twist at the end to round them off. The style is unpretentious – smooth and literate, but lapsing occasionally into a jocular irony which I found mannered:
When the supply of criminals dried up Farouk betook himself to that staple of police work: the persecution of motorists. Any suspect vehicle that fell under his eye was subjected to a thorough inspection, and the clerks at the local courts despaired at the sudden influx of paperwork that resulted.
Not quite satisfying, perhaps, as individual stories. Taken together, though, they build a compelling picture of a bewildering city, modern in some respects, in others a place of timeless savagery. Farouk scuttles though it like a malicious imp of mischief, ugly, lazy, incompetently dishonest and very appealing. It might be fun to have a drink with him. But after shaking hands you would be wise to count your fingers.
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Jun 10, 2011 § Leave a comment
David Belbin’s novel has been in the top ten at amazon.co.uk for several weeks. It introduces an “unusual and dynamic crime partnership”, according to regional fiction specialists Tindal Street Press (a pretty dynamic bunch themselves – three Booker nominations since 2003).
Sarah Bone is young, female and a Labour MP, still in opposition in early 1997. She has made a name for herself as a campaigner for penal reform. The book opens at a party to celebrate the release of a man wrongly convicted for the brutal double murder of a policeman and his wife. He is a splendidly obnoxious character and almost at once Sarah begins to wonder whether he might be guilty after all. Meanwhile her former lover Nick Cane is also free on parole after serving five years for drug dealing – and he is asking himself who tipped off the law.
Belbin’s plot ranges from the wine bars of Westminster to the mini cab offices and sink estates of Nottingham. You get the feeling that he’s more at home in Nottingham, but fortunately Parliament is dissolved early on and MPs retire to their constituencies for the general election. He does a good job of ramping up the tension in the run to the polls. The outcome is history (a Tory rout and 418 seats for Labour) but there are dirty tricks and dark secrets on all sides and genuine doubt about whether Sarah Bone will come out on top. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown play cameo roles on the telephone.
So far, so gripping. But with the election over the novel collapses into soap opera. Rather too many characters drink, dope and jump into bed – and nothing much comes of any of it. I spent a chapter or two waiting for the plot U-turn, but once the ballot papers have been counted the twin threads of the story – election and murder mystery – unravel before the reader’s eyes.
I had problems with Sarah Bone. Well-drawn and sympathetic as a heroine… but as a MP? President of the student union, yes; backbencher with a future, no. She pulls off a couple of coups, but in private she seems too impulsive and too much at the mercy of her own feelings. We know that politicians are human, and God knows they get caught with their trousers down often enough, but my honourable friend the member for Nottingham West, smoking a spliff on the balcony of her flat alongside her ex-con lover? Never heard of telephoto lenses? My fingers were clenched on my Kindle, waiting for the paparazzi to leap out from behind a neighbour’s dustbin.
The other half of the title, Nick Cane, doesn’t do much to hold things together. Ex-Labour activist, ex-teacher, ex-cannabis farmer and ex-con, he spends too much of our time with him being self-indulgent and inconsequential. In the end it’s hard to care what happens to him.
There is a serious theme at the back of this book. Life moves on: people change, make new commitments, discover new limitations, become bigger or smaller than they were. Usually we don’t notice because we are moving on too, but five years in the limbo of a cell can make the alteration in friends and loved ones seem dramatic. Belbin, I suspect, finds the vision of a life out of joint which ends the book more interesting than the crime story that begins it, and the two never quite blend together.