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Review: Michael Pearce’s The Mouth of the Crocodile December 4, 2014

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews.
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Another Netgalley review, written and posted over there from a free advance reading copy. This is the latest book in a series of historical mystery novels that I got hooked on back in the 1990s but lost track of somewhere over the years. Someone should really look into doing TV versions of these, though there’d probably be debates about Orientalism, colonialism, etc. But they’re done with Poirot, so why not?

As always, an entertaining mystery story about mostly good people on multiple sides in a place complicated by colonial and domestic politics. I read a number of earlier books in this series several years ago but lost track of them, possibly due to a change of publishers or distributors, so it’s great to encounter Gareth Owen, the Mamur Zapt, again. Like many of the people he works with (and sometimes against), Owen has to balance his loyalty to the British colonial government and to the Khedive, the Egyptian leader for whom he also works. This one felt a little different from some of the others I remember, much of it being set in the Sudan, including a suspenseful few chapters set on a train caught in a desert sandstorm; it also includes some younger characters, an English boy raised in the Sudan, a young upper class Egyptian woman who sees French culture, not Egyptian or English colonial, as her birthright, and the uneducated young mistress of an Egyptian official, who become an unlikely group of friends. Not quite Gareth and Zeinab: The Next Generation, but certainly interesting lenses through which to take a fresher look at north Africa shortly before the first world war.

The mystery begins with a death but is largely driven by political and commercial machinations. It’s not hardboiled stuff, and if you’re looking for a slightly more exotic take on something like Philip Kerr’s post-WWII crime novels, this may not be what you’re after. It’s also not the most character-driven stuff out there, at least where Owen himself is concerned. But evidently the series retains its unlikely blend of optimism and cynicism, and I’ll have to track down the ones I’ve missed.

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