(2004) Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Pocket Books, £6.99, pbk, 357pp, ISBN 0-671-77370-4
This is the third "Arabesk" novel, following on from Pashazade and Effendi, set in the fictional El Iskandryia in North Africa. The protagonist, Ashraf Bey, has been a detective, a governor and a diplomat, and uncle to Hani. His own origins are still shrouded in mystery: Ashraf's mother always insisted that his father was a Swedish hitchhiker but, since the first book, he has also been told that he is the son of Moncef, the Emir of Tunis. When there is an assassination attempt on the Emir's life, Ashraf goes undercover to discover who is behind the plot, but what he uncovers stretches back decades to before he was born. Then he finds himself framed for the assassination and buried alive... Can Ashraf escape solve the mystery before the Emir is killed? And will he discover anything that will make his relationship with Zara, or the royal house, any easier? And what of his own origin; can he discover the truth about his father and just what his mother did all those years ago?
Grimwood has, rightly, received a lot of praise for his cross-genre mysteries. Which is surprising when you consider how the marketing departments of publishers have tended to shy away from this kind of thing in the past. ((One can't help thinking that, perhaps, Joe Lansdale and others might have benefitted in the past from the current attitude, but better late than never.)) He typically gets good reviews from non-obvious sources like The Times, The Independent and the Sunday Telegraph and, not unlike Iain Banks, has helped to make SF 'acceptable' to the mainstream literary establishment. And quite right too! Grimwood's prose is delightful, thoughtful and subtle. According to Publishing News, "His way with a sentence has a baroque finesse that makes these unclassifiable novels as elegantly written as they are rich in imaginative energy." The 'unclassifiable' part is symptomatic of the inability of some reviewers to say anything nice about SF, but is partly understandable since the books are marketed as much as crime/mystery as they are SF. Thankfully that attitude is starting to change, and even The Guardian while describing Felaheen as "by turns a political thriller, a murder mystery and a search for identity," at least goes on to say that the book is "SF [at] its most inventive", not shying away from the genre. What's still surprising to me about all this is that Grimwood's world of El Iskandryia is firmly in the tradition of crime novels from the pulp days and yet, because that genre was seen to have successfully transcended its 'ghetto' earlier, SF now seems to have to ride its coattails to respectability. Strange. Perhaps it's just me...
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