The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Oct 24, 2013

The Muslim Detective

A passing comment by Zoë Ferraris got me thinking about the lack of Muslim detectives in crime fiction. Casting my mind back on the books I've read, I couldn't recall a single one (other than Ferraris' own Nayir ash-Sharqi and Katya Hijazi). But then my facility with names is particularly fraught, so I had to depend on the web to locate some names.

It turns out that I've read crime fiction featuring Muslim detectives in at least two books - one (The Bethlehem Murders) by Matt Rees and the other (Kismet) by Jakob Arjouni. There may be more, but I'm not in a position to say so.

Of course, as soon as I saw Arjouni's name, I recalled Kayankaya, as brilliant a creation as you can ask for. Wise-cracking, to boot! Indeed, a few years ago when I was ploughing my way through foreign crime fiction, I had noted this wonderful detective.

To be honest, 'Muslim' is far too broad a brush. There's much that differentiates a Turkish-German detective from, say, a poor Palestinian teacher-turned-investigator or a Saudi desert guide-turned-detective; and even more that differentiates any of those mentioned above - all men - from a Saudi forensic pathologist-turned-detective as well, a superbly etched Katya Hijazi. And though they are all Muslims, they run the gamut from secular to deeply devout, from people for whom religion has almost no impact on their daily lives to those whose every waking moment is governed by the Shariah. 

So I'd say that merely giving a detective a Muslim name doesn't make him one. Just as pointed out by those who deprecate underwritten and token minorities in speculative fiction, creating a run-of-the-mill character and tossing him or her a particular name does not make a difference. Chris Culver, a self-published author who recently found much success in the genre with The Abbey said he hadn't encountered many Muslim detectives in his reading, and, tired by the popular depictions of Muslims as terrorists, he had decided to feature a recovering alcoholic, Ash Rashid, an Indianapolis detective. How much Culver knows about Islam and whether Rashid is even a tiny bit coloured by Islam is something I can't answer, not having read the book. I'd be glad to hear from anyone who has.

And then there's the Canadian ad-man-turned-writer Scott Thornley whose Erasing Memory has a Muslim woman, Fiza Aziz, as a member of the detective team. I hope I'm not giving anything away when I say she supposedly suffers a bit of a burn-out in the first novel, but then comes back a-rearin' in the second The Ambitious City.

Zoë Ferraris, though, is absolutely top-notch. My knowledge of that most stifling of countries, Saudi Arabia, comes from the reading of two or three books (non-fiction, mainly) and the experiences of my wife in the neighbouring Kuwait. Ferraris is brilliant and insightful. Her characters (the very conservative Nayir and the struggling-against-the-patriarchy Katya) are deeply sympathetic; her understanding of the family dynamic in a traditional culture is nuanced; her depiction of the claustrophobia and the suffocation felt not just by women but also men in Saudi is eye-opening. I've only read the first of her trilogy featuring these detectives, The Night Of The Mi'raj, but I haven't been so moved by such an astute insight into character and motivations since I read Katie Kitamura's The Longshot.

The web search also revealed other detectives in the Islamic lands. It turns out that there was an entire Turkish golden age of crime fiction between 1928-50, and it was Turkey-centric, there were papers written on the depiction of foreigners in these books. What were these books? Are there any translations into English? All good questions.

The Moroccan-French writer Driss Chraïbi's Inspector Ali series features a Muslim detective. To be honest, Chraïbi was a social critic more than a genre writer, and how these books stand up as crime fiction, I can't say, not having read any of them.

I wouldn't be surprised if among the teeming volumes of pulp fiction published in Hindi, Urdu and other Indian languages, there weren't a few in which Muslim investigators do go after the villain. (I should take a look once again at my copy of The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction.) Many writers of these works are socially activist and often point an accusing finger at the hypocrisies and tragedies of life in South Asia. Some works may very well be steeped in the Muslim milieu as well, offering yet another perspective on a demonised community. On the other hand, if action and plot trump characterisation, the 'Muslim' detectives may just turn out to be tokens.

Serendipitiously, I came across this review of four detective books by the Urdu writer Ibne Safi (published, hurrah hurrah, by Blaft), in which the perfect and cold Colonel Faridi, accompanied by the witty and dashing Captain Hameed, are counterespionage agents who do a bit of detection on the side. The reviewer goes on to say: But fun as they are to read, they are not particularly satisfying as detective stories: plot developments can be arbitrarily motivated; there are long stretches of inane dialogue; there are convenient coincidences, hasty endings. As a quick read in discardable pulp format, this probably acquit themselves admirably; they will not rival Zoe Ferraris's works for mastery, perhaps.

Who are the others? Am I missing any obvious ones?


JK said...

Jason Goodwin has a series with a Muslim detective set in the Ottoman period

Feanor said...

Yes, thanks! You're right: I forgot about Yashim too... I've read a couple - I remember now you'd reviewed them as well.

Feanor said...

Which reminds me of the Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra's Superintendent Llob series.

Aishwarya said...

Not a useful comment in any way, but I would love your thoughts on the Ibne Safi books, if you ever read them.

Fëanor said...

Ibn Safi will have to wait till my next desh trip! Not sure if the books are available in these parts... Looks like Jabberwock has covered the books briefly, though.

Tantanoo said...

There's Madhulika Liddle's Mujaffar Jung -

Fëanor said...

Thanks for stopping by and the pointer. Haven't read this series - will look for it!

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