WH Auden wrote that the central plot idea of the detective story is to threaten, then restore, the Golden Age. One of the strengths of Andrew Killeen's powerful historical thriller is that the Golden Age on display is one alien and yet terribly familiar: the Baghdad of Harun al-Rashid, as remembered through the lens of the Thousand and One Nights. Abu Nuwas, the detective here, is both one of the most important of Arabic poets – he wrote in Arabic, but was Persian by birth – and a character who recurs in several tales of the Nights. He was famous both for deep knowledge of the Koran, and for the way his verse subverted both classic forms and religious language to celebrate drinking, bisexuality and falconry: a sometimes licensed, often imprisoned dissenter from a regime which used orthodoxy as a tool of statecraft.
Here, accompanied by the scholar and thief who becomes his sidekick and author of the Nights, he sometimes solves mysteries by hard application of his intellect and sometimes merely by wandering into trouble and coming out the other side with information.
In one sense, this is a classic use of the detective-story form – the apparently unconnected mysteries that combine, the likely suspect who becomes a victim, the detective framed for the crimes investigated. In another, it is a celebration both of the Islamic world at one of its peaks and the sudden reversals of fortune that characterise its best-remembered product. Killeen appropriates cheerfully, but with a consciousness that what is at stake is the common cultural heritage of humankind. He is providing us with a splendid piece of entertainment; he is also making a sly but important point.
The narrator, Ismail, is a Cornish peasant carried off by slavers. He has acquired, in the heart of the empire, both his freedom and a sense of the world and its possibilities that he would never otherwise have found. There are always complexities – and, through them, we negotiate our way to some sort of righteous truth.