Camels hiss, donkeys bray, market vendors argue, but the corpse has nothing to say when the Mamur Zapt, Gareth Cadwallader Owen, is called to the scene.
The dead man, Sabri, had been trying to get a message to Owen, head of the secret service during Britain’s protectorate of Egypt during WWI (The Fig Tree Murder, 2003, etc.), but had been knifed before reaching him. Did it have something to do with the many fires plaguing the city? The Senussi mounting another raid? The Turks massing on one side of the canal and preparing to attack? A pasha manipulating the cotton market? These questions must take a back seat while Owen deals with the attempts of Sabri’s young son at revenge, the distribution of seditious literature by the fire brigade captain’s daughter, the despair of Owen’s spy Georgiades over his wives’ lack of business sense, and his own wife Zeinab’s quandary: how to deal with prissy British women’s snubs and her own relatives’ attempts to curry favor with the Turks by forcing her into an affair with Prince Faruq. In his customary low-key manner, Owen sorts through the cacophonous political machinations and emerging women’s issues to resolve poor Sabri’s murder and the reasons for it.
The mystery takes second place to the wry, vivid picture of a country wrestling with changing values and a wavering national identity.