Violence and betrayal in a stormy borderland

Country: Pakistan

Book: Mule Train, by Huw Francis (Thunderpoint Publishing Ltd).

The plot blurb: “Four lives come together in the remote and spectacular mountains bordering Afghanistan, and explode in a deadly cocktail of treachery, betrayal and violence.”

Where and when: The Hindu Kush mountains that separate Pakistan and Afghanistan. Present day.

The Detectives: Border policeman Ishmael Khan has spent his life in the borderlands. His current mission is to find out what is happening to the foreign backpackers disappearing in the area (The answer lies in the heroin trade through the high mountain passes between Pakistan and Afghanistan).

Sense of Place: There are several Pakistans represented in this book. One character’s arrival in Karachi is accompanied by a stereotypical description of a city in the sub-continent; noisy and hot, dark, swarming with beggars and people with ugly, pockmarked faces: “The rancid, stale, hot, sweaty, spicy air wrapped itself around him” as “the scent of herbs and spices mixed with the stench of sewers and heat.”

But as another of the main characters travels by bus along the Grand Trunk road, she is “able to get her first glimpse of harsh, rural Pakistani life, that ran dry, dusty, rundown and apparently derelict alongside the road. Only scrub vegetation and a few wispy, leafless trees broke the monotony. A heavy, dusty haze cut the visibility to a few miles and obscured any view of the Himalayan foothills running parallel to the north.”

By contrast, Francis paints an idyllic pastoral scene as the plot moves into the higher land towards Afghanistan: “agriculture flourished in the flat-bottomed valley. The pale green of new grass in the fields looked soft compared to the hard arid land of the south. Apricot and mulberry trees randomly dotted the panorama, laden down under the weight of unripe fruit. Shady arbours under trees provided welcome coolness for playing children and sleepy old men. Stonewalled fields protected the first crop of the year in tiny fields.”

But these peaceful valleys are surrounded by fearsome mountains, from where sudden violent storms erupt, an apt setting and metaphor for the story’s dramatic climax.

World Crime Atlas is my retirement project to read a crime novel set in every country in The Times Atlas of the World. I am particularly interested in the sense of place created by the book.

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