The Golden Scales by Parker Bilal (thoughts)
As regular readers know, mysteries are one of my favourite genres. So when I saw The Golden Scales by Parker Bilal, written a Sudanese author and set in contemporary Cairo, on Netgalley I had to request it. Then I began and almost didn’t get past the prologue, which featured a down-and-out British woman in a bad part of town; the writing was far too gritty for me and it was all just a bit too raw. Fortunately, I decided to give it a couple more chapters, and after the prologue the point of view shifts to Makana, a former Khartoum police detective who now works as a private detective in Cairo. The tone changes to something mellow enough that I could handle it. Especially in exchange for a fun glimpse into modern Cairo with all of its twists and turns; I was lucky enough to visit Egypt with my family when I was thirteen and the first three days of our trip were spent in Cairo. We went during Ramadan, and it was all so different from the US & Europe; I really credit that trip with beginning my fascination with the world. Anyway, this is all to say that I have a real soft spot in my heart for Cairo, and it was neat seeing it through the eyes of Makana, who although he’s lived there for years is still a bit of an outsider.
Bilal’s greatest strengths are definitely setting and characters; as the book goes on, more of Makana’s story is revealed via flashbacks. I found him to be an utterly convincing character, and by the end I cared about him deeply. The minor characters he encounters are all vividly drawn; I would say the book is almost Dickensian in its cast, except I’m not a Dickens fan. ;) The writing draws you along and never pulls you out of the story.
All of that being said, the mystery itself is definitely not the ‘traditional’ type, what with a small group of suspects and a sleuth relying on deduction. Nope, this is definitely a kind of mystery/thriller hybrid and is quite hardboiled. Bilal is good at keeping the plot going, though, and through all four hundred pages I kept wanting to see what happens next! It’s really a personal taste thing; for me, Makana and Cairo balanced out my usual distaste for thrillers and I’ll definitely be looking for the next book in the series.
I’d highly recommend this to anyone who enjoys international lit with a strong sense of place, especially those who are also plot-oriented. But those who love getting to know characters will also be happy with Makana and his depths! As long as a reader can go along with the needs of a thriller for an occasionally violent scene, this is a wonderful, rewarding book.
Suggested Companion Reads
- A Beautiful Place to Die by Malla Nunn (The first in an excellent mystery series set in 1950s South Africa and featuring an English detective with his own past to hide. It’s also more hardboiled than my usual mystery fare but a very rich read.)
- <Black Water Rising by Attica Locke (I didn’t blog about this when I read it last year, but it’s another thriller based on political corruption themes.)
- Nairobi Heat by Mukoma Wa Ngugi (This is definitely more thriller than mystery and is about an American detective who flies to Nairobi to try to solve a murder mystery and gets caught up in an international conspiracy. It’s much shorter and not as character-focused as The Golden Scales, but it also manages to combine a page-turning plot with thought-provoking issues.)