brief return to mysteries: early 20th century Cairo


I don’t know how well Michael Pearce’s Mamur Zapt series is known these days; it doesn’t seem to be widely held in Michigan libraries, alas. They’re set in Cairo, in the early twentieth century; the term ‘Mamur Zapt’ means ‘head of the secret police’ though I’m not sure how exactly Pearce is using it, nor how closely the term corresponds to what modern readers would consider “secret police”. Certainly Owen, the series protagonist who holds the position, doesn’t seem particularly clandestine or secretive, much less oppressive of the local populace.

The two I have are The Mamur Zapt and the Donkey-Vous and The Mamur Zapt and the Men Behind, #3 and #4 in the series; I don’t know what groundwork was laid in the first two books but the series isn’t complex enough that picking up midstream, so to speak, was troublesome. In The Mamur Zapt and the Donkey-Vous, foreign nationals are being abducted from the terrace of one of Cairo’s best known tourist hotels amidst throngs of other visitors to Egypt and the locals crowding the streets nearby in hopes of getting some of the tourists’ money…yet no one has witnessed the actual abductions of either foreigner. Worse, it’s not entirely clear why the abductions have taken place. In The Mamur Zapt and the Men Behind, various members of the British civil service in Cairo, Egypt’s capital, are complaining about being followed and even shot at by men tailing them. The Mamur Zapt is called in, but his work is hindered by the fact that he himself is also, not surprisingly, being tailed.

The two I have, and presumably the rest as well, are enjoyable fluffy reading, not terribly complicated but an interesting diversion for anyone who’s grown weary of cookie cutter mysteries set in the United States or United Kingdom in the modern day (or even in the past), but who wants straightforward uncomplicated mysteries set in a (mostly) non-European culture, with a mix of Europeans trying to fit into an alien culture. They’re more dialogue and action driven than Andrew McCall Smith’s “The #1 Ladies Detective Agency” series, but might appeal to those of us who’re interested in reading about other cultures and countries. I don’t know how accurate Pearce is–indeed, one might level charges of post-colonial cultural appropriation against him as well as against Andrew McCall Smith, as both are Caucasian outsiders who’ve lived in similar cultures themselves. (In defense of the Mamur Zapt series, Pearce has his protagonist in a non-marital monogamous relationship with one of the local women; this relationship is accepted and recognized by the other locals, but not by the British residents of the area.) As an outsider to both cultures, and indeed to the time which Pearce is describing, I’ll never know how accurate either author is…

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