Yasmina Khadra, Dead Man's Share
(The Toby Press, 2009)
This is the first English translation of a novel originally published in French as La Part du Mort in 2004. Yasmina Khadra is the pen name of an Algerian author, Mohammed Moulessehoul, who left his native country in 2000 and currently resides in Paris. Dead Man's Share is the latest installment in a murder mystery series (all available in English translation from Toby Press) featuring police superintendent Brahim Llob and his associate, Lieutenant Lino.
Superintendent Llob is in his mid-fifties, married, more or less happily. He and his wife Mina have four children living at home: two grown sons plus a son and daughter in their teens. At least in this novel, Llob's family life is somewhat peripheral to the plot. So, for the most part, is his religion, although as a practicing Muslim he refrains from drinking alcoholic beverages. Coincidentally, Llob is also an author of murder mysteries. Although this novel does not portray him in the act of writing, he occasionally refers to his literary output, and some of the other characters mention it, some admiringly, others disparagingly, as though it were just a frivolous hobby.
The action takes place primarily in the city of Algiers, although there's very little in the narrative to give any sense of the place in terms of streets, buildings, even the ocean (the city sits on a bay overlooking the Mediterranean Sea). The time period is the late 1980s or early 1990s as far as I can tell. I can't say that for sure, because there are no explicit references to dates in the novel. I know that Llob fought in the Algerian war for independence from France, which lasted from 1954-1962. If that is the case, assuming he was at least in his twenties then, I have to make that assumption.
In this installment, Llob has to unravel a very complicated plot that begins with the murder of an attractive young woman who had been the mistress of a powerful and corrupt political leader, Haj Thobane. (One quickly discovers that all the powerful political leaders in Algeria are also corrupt. It apparently goes with the territory.) In spite of her rather well-documented relationship with Haj Thobane, the gullible Lieutenant Lino has been courting this young woman and so becomes the prime suspect in her murder. Llob is convinced from the outset that Lino has been framed, but the Algerian criminal justice system being what it is, Lino languishes in a very unpleasant prison while Llob tries to prove his innocence by uncovering the real perpetrator.
It's never good form to reveal too much of the plot of a murder mystery. Fortunately for us both, I couldn't begin to explain to you all the twists and turns this story takes as Llob tries to make sense of it. Every time he thinks he has a handle on it, he discovers some evidence (or hears some new explanation) that throws his theory into disarray. His investigation takes him out of Algiers to a remote place called Sidi Ba where various atrocities took place during the war of independence.
Dead Man's Share is written in the first person, entirely from the very cynical and darkly humorous viewpoint of Superintendent Llob. Here, for example, is part of his initial description of Haj Thobane:
Haj Thobane is an influential person in Greater Algiers. A piece of history. According to him, he was the one who kicked De Gaulle up the backside. In my country, of course, a legend like this has such a thick hide that a rhinoceros wouldn't rub up against it. (p. 54)
Here's part of Llob's description of Mohand, who owns his favorite bookstore:
I wouldn't want to end up on a desert island with him for anything. He can't go to bed without something to read in front of his nose, and spiteful gossip has it that he only puts his hand on Monique's pussy to wet his finger so he can turn the pages. (p. 92)
The combination of Llob's misanthropy with the obvious physical and psychological shortcomings of his co-workers and associates makes it nearly impossible to identify any sympathetic characters in this novel.
This edition includes a few footnotes, intended no doubt to aid the hapless reader in gaining some understanding of the many obscure references that carry over from the French or Arabic in Aubrey Botsford's translation. So, for example, on page 8, we have "douar, the name for an administrative region"; on page 167, "pied-noir (blackfoot), French citizen born in Algeria." These help a little, but what would be more useful to a newcomer is a foreword giving some historical context and explaining a bit about how the Algerian government is organized. I was fortunate to have read a bit about the Algerian war of independence in an issue of Dissent Magazine (Fall 2008) not too long before I started reading Dead Man's Share. So at least I wasn't completely clueless.
I love a good fiction series, and ordinarily prefer to read more than one book in the series before I write a review, just to get a feel for the ways the author handles continuity and character development. I am reasonably sure that Toby Press would have sent us copies of the other books in this series if we had requested them. Alas, I struggled enough just to finish Dead Man's Share. I couldn't bring myself to tackle any of the other books about Superintendent Llob.