Arab detective novels: a comeback?
By M Lynx Qualey
If Egyptian booksellers had put together a best-seller list at the turn of the twentieth century, it almost certainly would’ve been topped by clever detectives. Popular reads of the day included translations of Sherlock Holmes and Arsène Lupin mysteries, as well as original works pretending to be translations—in order to increase their sales.
Detective novels lit up the imagination of many Arab readers during the early twentieth century. A wealth of Agatha Christie translations can still be found in second-hand stores from Morocco to Oman. Commentator Jonathan Guyer has called the period from the 1890s through the 1960s “the golden age of illicit crime fiction translation [into Arabic].”
“All 10,000 copies of Michel Zévaco’s [1900 cloak-and-dagger novel] Les Pardaillan sold out in a mere three months,” scholar Samah Selim said at a talk last year. “Ten thousand copies — those are circulation figures we don’t even dream of today.”
Many great literary authors loved the genre: Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz told a Paris Review interviewer that his favorite author as a boy was Hafiz Najib, a convicted thief who was also the author of 22 detective novels.
Mahfouz tried his hand at crime writing, too, with the 1961 novel The Thief and the Dogs. But after that, Arab writers focused largely on social realism and restructured nationalism. Later, many moved to personal novels and dense linguistic experiments. For most of the region, the detective genre went dormant.
At this year’s Downtown Contemporary Arts Festival (D-CAF) in Cairo, detective novelist M.M. Tawfik—author of Murder in the Tower of Happiness and Candygirl, both of which Tawfik has translated into English—explained why he wanted to bring the detective novel back into prominence.
“I started writing my first detective novel in the late 1990s,” Tawfik said. “If we remember what the literary scene looked like in the 1990s, it was basically about a generation of writers writing almost unintelligible equations about extremely personal things that were terribly boring. And I felt that was damaging to the Egyptian tradition that had started a century earlier, and it was important to bring back a way of writing that was geared not just simply as an expression of the writer's own internal issues but also was geared to the reader.”
“And what better way to do that than a detective novel?”
Tawfik appeared at D-CAF along with popular Egyptian thriller writer Ahmed Mourad, one of the major figures in the rebirth of Arabic genre fiction. Mourad came to fame with the crime novel Vertigo, and to wider acclaim with his psychological thriller Blue Elephant, which was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction and turned into a film.
The detective tradition hadn’t gone dormant everywhere: Western Arab countries carried the flame. Although the genre has been male-dominated across the region, in Algeria, a few women crime-writers have come to prominence, such as Nassima Bouloufa, whose 2015 novel Heartbeats in the Dead of the Night features a female protagonist.
Among critics, there is a growing appreciation for the Arabic detective novel, and yet there remains a sense that genre novels aren’t quite serious. It was a surprise to many when Mourad’s Blue Elephant and then Ibrahim Eissa’s The Televangelist made the 2013 International Prize for Arabic Fiction shortlist. But, as Tawfik noted at the spring D-CAF event, detective novels can be quite as serious as a “realist” novel.
“A detective novel is also a perfect format to include a lot of history,” Tawfik said. “Because the genre, basically, is about finding the truth. And when you're focused on finding the truth, you can have a lot of interesting discussions about what the truth is.”
At the Emirates LitFest in 2011, Egyptian scholar Kamal Abdel Malek and Welsh crime writer Matt Rees gave a talk entitled: "Could an Agatha Christie emerge from the Arab World?" In a recent email exchange, Abdel Malek said that "I recall Matt Rees saying … that the private investigator could function only in a democracy, and that was why it was possible to have him in the West and not in the Arab world, where all aspects of the law are squarely in the hands of the government."
And yet there is a private investigator of sorts in Mourad’s Vertigo: a photographer who happens across a murder and struggles to bring what he’s learned to the public—not to the police. The same is true in Ibrahim Eissa’s The Televangelist, where the titular televangelist must do the detecting.
When august Egyptian economist and writer Galal Amin reviewed Mourad’s 1919, he asked: “Does this novel achieve any goal other than entertainment?” Hopefully, young Egyptian authors can nonetheless embrace novels—particularly detective novels—that entertain.
Five fast-paced Arabic crime-and-detective novels in new translation:
- Whitefly, by Abdelilah Hamdouchi, translated by Jonathan Smolin. Detective Laafrit is a grizzled but likeable department veteran who’s stuck amid less-than-brilliant colleagues. He travels down numerous dead-ends as he tries to solve the drowning and shooting deaths of several migrants. His search is complicated by beautiful women, a gun-toting drug lord, and small-time criminal informants.
- Vertigo, by Ahmed Mourad, translated by Robin Moger. A photographer in a high-class Cairo nightclub witnesses his friend murdered in a fight between rival young businessmen. First, he must discover who did it, then find a way to share what he’s learned with the public.
- White Masks, by Elias Khoury, translated by Maia Tabet. Why was the corpse of Khalil Ahmad Jaber found in a garbage heap? Who was he, and who killed him? An anonymous narrator attempts to find out.
Metro, by Magdy al-Shafee, translated by Chip Rossetti. Angry and broke, young Shehab enlists his friend Mustafa to help in a bank heist — and uncovers both financial and political corruption. On the run with a case full of money and evidence, Shehab and Mustafa careen through Cairo's metro system.
- The Televangelist, by Ibrahim Eissa, translated by Jonathan Wright. Here the “private investigator” is a popular televangelist who’s become entangled with Egypt’s (unnamed) ruling family. Who is hunting down the televangelist’s closest friend, a Sufi sheikh? Why is a mysterious beautiful woman seducing him? And where has the ruling family black sheep run off to?