One young woman lost and another found are the keys to the Mamur Zapt’s latest adventure in 1913 Egypt.
A bride box serves as an Egyptian woman’s hope chest. The brightly decorated box normally contains her trousseau, the clothing and articles she’s collected in anticipation of her wedding day. What it doesn’t normally contain is the bride. So it’s distressing to find a bride box addressed to Pasha Ali Maher that doubles as a coffin for the body of Soraya, a basket weaver’s daughter whose aspirations toward a marriage above her station—perhaps with the Pasha’s slow-witted son Karim, perhaps with another member of his household—were cruelly ended by her strangulation. Luckily, Soraya’s sister Leila, whose father, Mustapha, sold her to the Sudanese slaver Abdulla Sardawi, has run away from her new owner and landed in the household of Gareth Cadwallader Owen, the Mamur Zapt who heads the Khedive’s secret police. But there’s not much the little girl can reveal about her sister’s fate, and both the Pasha and his lady suavely maintain that it has nothing to do with them. Mobilizing his usual resources—his old friend parquet prosecutor Mahmoud el Zaki and Georgiades, a Greek investigator with a positive genius for drawing petty bureaucrats into imprudent confidences—Owen connects Soraya’s death to an ominous smuggling ring and a pair of seriously dysfunctional families.
As always in this comically understated series (The Mark of the Pasha, 2008, etc.), both crime and punishment are consistently upstaged by a lovingly detailed portrait of Egypt during the Great War. The result is a bit like a police procedural reimagined by Douglas Adams.