Dogstar Rising, By Parker Bilal

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The Independent Culture

The second outing for Parker Bilal's Sudanese detective Makana, a refugee scraping along on a dilapidated houseboat in Cairo, has all the satisfying complexities of his first, The Golden Scales. Bilal is actually the well-known writer Jamal Mahjoub, who has a superb novelist's eye for detail: I'm sure I have been in that Cairo taxi whose upholstery looks as if it has been mauled by hungry dogs.

The "Dogstar" refers to a Koranic verse that has associations stretching back to the goddess Isis. Now the verse is discovered on a paper connected to a murdered woman who has been working for a travel agency, and struggling to survive at the beginning of this millennium. The agency is a a dubious organisation, a microcosm of the turmoil which pits modernists against traditionalists and Muslims against Christians, its employees divided. Not only was the dead woman a Copt, but her husband refused to conform to strict religious demands and lost his academic status.

Makana is pressurised further by a sinister character who claims the detective's daughter was not drowned in the family's escape from Sudan, but may still be alive. Lurking menacingly are shadowy figures from Egyptian political life, including police officials trained by the CIA.

The detective, posing as a travel agent, must travel to Luxor and Aswan to pursue sinister rumours surrounding an old Coptic monastery in Upper Egypt, where it was believed young boys were tortured. This is followed by horrific developments back in Cairo.

The murder mysteries are finally resolved, but what cannot be settled is the overwhelming question of the future of Egypt. We are made aware of a country on the brink of a tumultuous destiny. Looking up at a TV screen in a restaurant, Makana sees "a drama… above their heads that would influence the next decade in ways none of them could yet imagine." Yes, 9/11 has arrived. Like all the best crime fiction, Bilal's story has a depth and resonance which stretches far beyond its cast of characters into the wider world.