I have just read a most remarkable novel called THE GOLDEN SCALES. And as the cover hastens to tell you, it’s “A Makana Mystery” (more on that in a minute) by Parker Bilal. The Parker Bilal of the credits is a pseudonym for Jamal Mahjoub, a critically acclaimed author of several works of fiction who brings his considerable literary chops to bear upon the thriller genre without missing a beat.
THE GOLDEN SCALES is a tale that is told in the story’s “present” (approximately 1998) but is very much influenced by what has occurred in the past. It is comprised of two stories that begin separately and slowly intersect within the narration. The setting for the novel is the city of Cairo, a place of desperate poverty and incalculable wealth, and one in which street tensions roil uneasily 24 hours a day and people disappear officially and otherwise.
"The Parker Bilal of the credits is a pseudonym for Jamal Mahjoub, a critically acclaimed author of several works of fiction who brings his considerable literary chops to bear upon the thriller genre without missing a beat."
Makana is a Sudanese expatriate, a former police officer who wore out his welcome in his native country and now ekes out a hardscrabble existence as a private investigator, operating his office from a restaurant and living on a boat that threatens to fall apart if someone walks on the wrong side of it. There is no mistaking Makana for Travis McGee, once one gets past the “rumpled knight” comparison. Makana is inexplicably retained by Saad Hanafi, a legendary Cairo entrepreneur whose fortune was acquired by strong-arm activities but who now functions as a semi-legitimate businessman through a number of diversified businesses. Hanafi owns the DreemTeem, a popular soccer team whose star player has disappeared. Adil Romario has not been seen for weeks, having appeared to vanish off the streets of Cairo, other than for the posters and seemingly innumerable products that bear his image and endorsement.
At the same time, there is a second story, one that concerns a half-mad English woman whose visit to Cairo in 1981 ended in tragedy when her four-year-old daughter was kidnapped. The woman has made annual pilgrimages to the city in an attempt to locate her daughter. But shortly after a chance meeting with Makana in 1998, she is found brutally murdered in the very hotel room from where her daughter was abducted. Makana feels a kinship with the woman for several reasons, not the least of which is his own tragic past that is slowly but steadily revealed throughout the book’s narration. Still,, Makana cannot escape the feeling that his investigation into Romario’s disappearance is somehow tied into the disappearance of the woman’s daughter some 17 years before.
Makana’s investigations --- one for hire, the other on his own --- take him on a perilous course through Cairo’s alleys and thoroughfares, and ultimately into a direct confrontation with his own past. His presence in Cairo is a tenuous one at best, and there is always the possibility that he will be extradited back to Sudan, where death is all but a certainty for him. Hanafi, as wealthy and powerful as he is, has enemies whose combined might equals his, so that his foes become Makana’s during the course of the investigation. While at least one of the puzzles facing Makana will be predictable to mystery aficionados, surprises abound nonetheless. Further, the opportunity to watch Makana, a good man in a very bad place, maneuver himself through the dangers of one of the world’s most exotic cities is worth the price of admission all by itself.
Bilal by any name is an enthralling scribe, one who is able to write beautifully without sacrificing excitement. There is one vignette near the book’s conclusion wherein Makana faces a peril that Ian Fleming might have dreamed up for his own fabled creation. Danger abounds throughout THE GOLDEN SCALES, whether as a presence in a room or a lurking inference just around the next corner. If the cover legend “A Makana Mystery” portends more to come from Bilal, I will be there. And you should be, too.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on February 9, 2012