Abdelilah Hamdouchi, The Final Bet (The American University in Cairo Press, 2008)
Hakan Nesser, Mind's Eye: an Inspector Van Veeteren Mystery (Pantheon Books, 2008)
Since most of the mysteries I encounter are written by Americans or Brits, I harbor a special interest in those whose authors are neither, hoping to find in them new and different approaches to the genre. So I was especially pleased to receive review copies of The Final Bet and Mind's Eye. I read them one after the other and decided to review them together because of their remarkable similarities.
The Final Bet came to us from our usual source of American University in Cairo Press goodies, International Publishers' Marketing. It's billed as the first Arabic detective novel to be translated into English (the book's initial publication date was 2001). Barely 150 pages long, it's considerably shorter than your average mystery novel and could easily pass as a novella.
The action takes place in present-day Casablanca. The plot involves the brutal stabbing of an elderly French woman in her own bedroom; her much younger Moroccan husband is the prime suspect in the case, in part because his alibi is his much younger girlfriend, in part because he is presumed to be the beneficiary of his wife's estate.
The lead detective on the case is Allal ben Alawaam, known as Alwaar, which means "rough guy" in Arabic. He is a seasoned and canny veteran of the police force, a chain-smoker who bets the horses for fun. He's a pretty likeable character, all told. He's aided by a number of other police officers but their roles are so limited that I couldn't get a feel for them as individual characters.
Although I generally prefer my novels to be longer than this, The Final Bet is a perfectly fine murder mystery. My quibbles with it are few and relatively minor. I would have liked to see more narrative about Casablanca itself, since it's not as familiar to me as, say, Cairo or Istanbul. I couldn't really get a good sense of the place from this novel, although the author did provide some fascinating and chilling details about the way the Moroccan criminal justice system works.
In a few places, the translator (Jonathan Smolin) left words in Arabic that were not familiar to me from other Arabic fiction I've read. I didn't mind having the words in the text, but I would have appreciated a brief glossary in the back of the book to let me know what the words meant. For example, I could determine from context that jalbab refers to an article of clothing, but I had no idea what a jalbab looked like until I did some 'net research. But I don't want to stop to look up an unfamiliar word when I'm reading fiction!
The Final Bet author Abdelilah Hamdouchi is one of Morocco's first writers of detective fiction; he's written eight novels as well as screenplays for both film and television. Smolin's brief afterword notes that the detective genre arrived late in Morocco in part because until the 1990s the political situation in Morocco was so repressive that no one would have dared to write a novel with police detectives as main characters. That observation helped me to make sense of the occasional references in the novel to police actions and to the limited role of the defense attorney in the case.
Originally published in 1993, Mind's Eye is the first novel in a Swedish series featuring detective chief inspector Van Veeteren (I never did figure out his first name), a bulky, toothpick-chewing man in his early fifties. A few well-placed sentences further reveal that Van Veeteren tends toward depression, is estranged from his wife, has a daughter who is married and lives some distance away as well as a son who's in prison for drug smuggling. Oh, and although he seems to be in pretty poor physical shape, he plays pick-up badminton with some of his co-workers.
Like The Final Bet, Mind's Eye also focuses on a single case, a murder that has just taken place as the novel opens. The victim drowns in her bathtub while her husband lies in a drunken, possibly drugged, stupor down the hall in their bedroom. He is unable to explain what happened after he and his dead wife drank wine together and made love on their kitchen table. He further raises the suspicions of the police by 'tidying up' the house, cleaning glassware and doing laundry, before they arrive to investigate the crime scene.
At 278 pages, Mind's Eye is more typical of the murder mystery genre than The Final Bet. The extra length allows for more exposition about the crime, the victim's past, the alleged perpetrator's apparent motives for killing her, and, most importantly, Van Veeteren's ruminating approach to uncovering the truth. The added length also allows for some additional plot twists that spice up the mystery. Still absent from this novel, and regrettably so, is enough detail to orient the reader to the setting. To be honest, I don't even know for certain where in Sweden the action takes place.
Although he now lives in New York part of the time, author Hakan Nesser is Swedish by birth and writes primarily in his native language. The translator of Mind's Eye, Laurie Thompson, is a Brit who has taught Swedish and served as founding editor of the Swedish Book Review. Two of the other novels in this series, The Return and Borkmann's Point, are also available in English translation.