World Crime Fiction: The retirement project to read one crime novel set in every country listed in The Times atlas of the world.
Double Blank, by Yasmina Khadra
The plot: A senior diplomat is found beheaded. Is he another victim of Islamic fundamentalists? The plot takes us through the city’s underworld and its rich elites, encountering politicians, fundamentalists and crooks on the way.
Where and when? Algiers in the late 1990s. The novel was first published in 1997.
The detectives: This is one in a series of novels featuring Superintendent Llob. He is joined by his cynical assistant, Lino, and a giant ex-paratrooper called Ewegh Seddig, who tends to thump first and ask later. Llob is a wise-cracking hard-boiled cop, with a good line in Chandleresque observations: “Take a mummy and change its diaper and you’ll end up with the man I found at the Sidi Mabrouk Clinic.”
Sense of place: Khadra personalises the city, giving it human qualities: “Algiers hoards her suffering the way a wino hoards his rotgut wine. She is huddled up, worn out by the effort of holding back her spasms so that she doesn’t explode.”
The tough-talking police officer is capable of describing the people living in this suffering city in heroic terms: “On the sun-glazed road, I see fellahin breaking their backs in their fields, truck drivers hugging the steering wheel with their arms, women waiting for a forgetful bus, children jogging to school, idlers meditating on the terraces of cafes, old men rotting against fences. On their faces, despite the burden of uncertainty and the darkness of the nation’s drama, I glimpse a wondrous kind of serenity.”
Both the city and its population are players in a much bigger drama: “Outside, the par-boiled city is on edge. Dissonant throbbing is answered by ululating sirens. Spring has not finished packing its bags, and already Algiers reminds one of a barbecue suspended between God’s hell and man’s purgatory.”
But ultimately, it is a bleak vision, of a city and its people who are beyond hope and redemption: “To baptise Hai El-Moustaqbal, “City of the Future” – an appalling collection of rotting hovels piled higgledy-piggledy on a wasteland overflowing with pestilential gullies and poverty – reeks of cynicism. Hai El-Moustaqbal doesn’t even dare to hope. Its horizons are cursed. Its tomorrows are afraid. It’s as if it sprang up out of a nervous breakdown. Not a streetlight, not a pothole: nothing but a stricken no-man’s-land caught in a vicelike grip between the cowardice of one side and the neglect of the other. It is a zone given over to perdition of all kinds, where the people – neither subjects nor citizens – are born and die amid universal indifference.”
Is it worth reading? Despite the bleakness of the vision, unquestionably yes. An insider (Khadra is the pseudonym of former high-ranking Algerian army officer Mohammed Moulessehoul) view of a nation sliding into the horrors of fundamentalist violence.