Friday, August 4, 2017

Review of The Burning Gates by Parker Bilal (Bloomsbury, 2015)

Cairo, 2004. Former Sudanese detective, now political refugee and private investigator, Makana is asked by the city’s leading art dealer to explore rumours that a famous painting, that disappeared from Kuwait in the first Gulf war, is hidden nearby. The suspicion is that the painting was smuggled into the country by an Iraqi colonel wanted for war crimes. Makana’s probing soon leads to encounters with two mysterious Americans, a corrupt former police officer, and a powerful pair of local gangsters, and to the vicious death of the art dealer. With the demise of his employer Makana could step away from the case, but his need to practice justice, plus a request from a local police detective, compels him to search for the art dealer’s murderer and the fabled painting and its thief. Which means navigating a perilous route between competing interests.

The Burning Gates is the fourth instalment of the Makana private investigator series set in Cairo. In this outing, Makana starts out exploring rumours that a famous painting looted in the first Gulf War is in the city, along with the Iraqi war criminal who plunderer it and other treasures. However, he’s soon in the crossfire of six competing interests, including a pair of local gangsters, a team of US mercenaries, an American cop, a corrupt former cop, the local police, and the elusive Iraqi colonel. Bilal nicely interweaves the strands to create a compelling thriller that manages to remain mostly grounded in possibilities rather than straying into fantastical plot devices as many thrillers do, with Makana tracing the various threads and reveals to a nice denouement. As with the other stories in the series, the real strengths of the tale are the reflective and stoic lead character, his coterie of helpers – his driver, newspaper connection, local cop – the strong sense of place, and the contextualisation with respect to contemporary Egyptian culture and politics. The result is an engaging and entertaining read that nicely blends a classic PI trope with political thriller.

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