Thursday, August 29, 2019

Review of Assembly of the Dead by Saeida Rouass (2017, Impress)

Morocco, 1906. Six girls have disappeared in Marrakesh but local officials have refused to investigate, suggesting they have run away. The sultan sends Farook al-Alami, a cultured official who has spent time in Europe and learned some of their policing methods, to the city to discover the truth. Farook’s presence is unwanted and he gets little help from the locals. He gradually makes progress and it soon becomes clear that there are more than six girls missing. The locals now take a more active role to save face, but their methods are crude. Farook sticks to his approach hoping to stop the killer before any more girls disappear.

Assembly of the Dead is a historical mystery tale set in Morocco in 1906 and fictionalizes a real serial murder case in which teenage girls and young women were lured to their deaths in the city of Marrakesh. At the time, Morocco had no police force (crime was investigated by a civilian or court judge appointed by the Ministry of Complaints), was plagued with domestic political instability, and was under pressure from European powers (it became a French protectorate in 1912). Rouass very nicely places the story within this political context, but also the social context of everyday life and the social hierarchies operating. Indeed, there is a strong sense of place and culture (family relations, food, religion, trade, governance) throughout. The political context is also captured in the relationship between the lead character, Farook al-Alami, a representative of the sultan who has spent time in London and takes an interest in European affairs, including police investigative methods, and a local investigator, Yusuf al-Mhadi, who is rooted in local officialdom and gains confessions through terror; as well as with a French doctor practising in the city who feels increasingly under threat. The telling felt a little clunky at first, but it quickly smooths out, settling into a nice cadence, and gains interest as Farook’s investigation progresses. The plot is well charted and builds to a nice denouement. And it was interesting to learn about the ‘Moorish Jack the Ripper’, who had far more victims than his London counterpart.

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