When Gareth Cadwallader Owen, the Mamur Zapt of colonial Cairo, reaches into his in-box and pulls out the Widow Shawquat’s petition that her husband’s property be passed on to her son instead of to the distant relative who wants to sell the land out from under them, Owen politely tries to fend her off. He’s more concerned with making sense of the suicide of Osman Fingari, a minor functionary in the Department of Agriculture, who swallowed most of a bottle of prussic acid at his desk. Was his job so stressful? No one seems to know exactly what his responsibilities were, or why he was transferred to Agriculture from the Ministry of Public Works, where he registered changes of land use. Could his problems have involved cotton, Egypt’s principal export? Owen’s investigation leads him to the conflicting but equally devious schemes of the Khedivial Agricultural Society, the Agricultural Board, and foreign investment bankers. Fingari was apparently being squeezed by all of them, and also by his nefarious old school chum Jabir, who needed certain land usages renegotiated (cue the return of the Widow Shawquat). To unravel the byzantine financial and commercial interests of all concerned, Owen must rely on some deft maneuvering by a local pasha, as well as his barber.
Rife with subterfuge, political intrigue, and state-of-the-art business chicanery, circa 1910, with dozens of sly asides and a glimpse of Egypt so pungent you can almost smell the camel dung.