It’s a tall order for a crime fiction author to stand out from the pack. Such is the popularity of the genre, it can be fiercely competitive.
The British-Sudanese writer Jamal Mahjoub doesn’t run the risk of imitation, however. Written under the pseudonym Parker Bilal, his detective series is a truly original creation. It follows Makana, a Sudanese private investigator living in exile among the hustle and bustle of Cairo.
Starting in 2012 with The Golden Scales, each of the five instalments has Makana investigating cases linked to larger global concerns such as the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, and the societal stagnation that led to the 2011 Egypt revolution.
In the latest release, City of Jackals, Makana ventures into Cairo’s underbelly as he investigates what appears to be the ritual killing of African migrants.
Mahjoub, who also wrote the acclaimed novels Travelling with Djinns (2003) and The Drift Latitudes (2006), says that while the Makana books are written as standalone tales, the series aims to tell a bigger story.
“They are interlinked and connected, but can be read individually,” he says, before his session at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature on Friday.
“Together these stories can build a portrait of what is happening in the region and how some of these political developments took place.”
This overarching aim is not new. There have been plenty of regional authors, from Algeria’s Yasmina Khadra (who appeared at the festival last week) to Egypt’s Ahmed Mourad, who use fiction to explore the harsh challenges facing the Arab world.
But to the tackle the complex and painful topic through a genre as potentially derivative as crime fiction would have had Mahjoub run the risk of being accused as an opportunist.
The 57-year-old disagrees. In fact, he states the genre is an ideal way to delve into the thorny issues facing the region.
“The detective, as well as a doctor, is the only character that can go from the lowest to the highest parts of society, because that’s their job,” he says.
“They can give us this X-ray view that can cut straight through society. They have to understand the power structure – how things work at the top and the bottom – and they have to know how to manoeuvre through it.
“That is a beautiful tool as a writer if you want to describe what is happening in society.”