The Mark of the Pasha by Michael Pearce. When I tell people that my specialty is historical mysteries, they often ask who my favorite author is. As my list grows and grows and their eyes start to glaze over, I realize that I have too many favorites. But one author always near the top of my list is Michael Pearce. Like Boris Akunin, Paul Doherty and Edward Marston, Pearce writes multiple series with different settings. Though I enjoy his Sandor Seymour mysteries along the Mediterranean, it is his original Mamur Zapt books set in Egypt in the 1910s during the period of British occupation that I appreciate the most. The Mamur Zapt, Gareth Owen, is Head of the Khedive’s Secret Police, which makes him tangential to, but still a part of, the English bureaucracy as he investigates any crimes that have political implications. Owen negotiates his way through the four main Egyptian constituencies: the English, who want to maintain the status quo and the power that comes with it; the wealthy Pashas, led by the Khedive, who want progress, but not at the cost of losing their traditional power; the young Nationalists, who want a modern country without the English or the Pashas; and the millions of common citizens, who just want peace on their streets and enough food in their bellies. Adding to this combustible political situation are the Ottomans, the Germans, and occasionally the religious sheiks, who wield considerable influence among the people.
Pearce’s main strength is his ability to capture the atmosphere of Cairo and the surrounding countryside. His tone and the pace of his dialogue make you feel like you’re sitting at an outdoor café enjoying a leisurely cup of tea while the water carts sprinkle their liquid cargo in an attempt to dampen the dust raised by the market crowds. These are not books to be read in short, 15-minute blocks. You need to set aside a longer period of time so that the heat of the Egyptian sun sinks into your skin and relaxes your entire body. After a while everything just slows down, even as the Mamur Zapt closes in on the culprits.
Pearce also has excellent continuity and development of secondary characters throughout the series. Owen is assisted by Georgiades, a large Greek with a skill of gathering the rumors of the streets by just sitting and listening, and Nikos, a Copt, whose files contain secrets on everyone who has ever had dealings with the Mamur Zapt. There are several recurring characters among the other English stationed in Cairo, but it is Owen’s colleague in the Department of Prosecutions of the Ministry of Justice that is most interesting. Mahmoud el Zaki is a young investigator and prosecutor, a member of the Opposition Party striving for new national identity for Egypt, but shares with Owen a deep sense of justice. Owen’s love interest is Zeinab, the daughter of a Pasha and with independent thoughts about her future and her relationship with Owen.
I would, of course, recommend reading all sixteen books from the beginning. The current book takes place soon after the end of World War One. I was disappointed that Pearce chose not to set any books during the war and instead has the series timeline jump over it with no references to any of the series’ characters having seen combat. Irregardless, this story depicts a more modern post-war world. The Nationalists still seek to bring things to a crisis by attempting to assassinate the Khedive, but are now using current scientific knowledge to create bombs. Owen and Zeinab are now married and she is working as a hospital administrator and thinking of babies. The languid pace of previous books is sometimes lost as the use of modern motorcars replaces the arabeahs, but much of the action takes place around the hammam, the traditional bathhouse. The investigation of the conspirators proceeds slowly but surely with few surprising twists, but as these books are more about character and atmosphere rather than mystery, it should satisfy most of Pearce’s loyal followers.