Is Garvin, the commandant, playing power games, or is he trying to get to the bottom of the allegations of corruption?
Pearce, Michael. The Snake Catcher's Daughter. Apr. 2003 202p. Poisoned Pen, $24.95 (1-59058-051-6). Gareth Owens, Cairo's Intrepid Mamur Zapt (head of the secret police), is back in another seriocomic adventure that is both witty and engrossing. After finding a naked woman in his bed, and after a diamond necklace mysteriously appears in his girlfriend's boudoir, Owen decides someone is trying to bribe him. Then the local newspaper prints a stinging indictment not only of Owen but also of Garvin, commandant of the Cairo police, and his assistant, McPhee. In the course of his investigation, Owen becomes involved in a women's purification ritual, meets a rare female snake catcher, and incurs the wrath of his girlfriend. As usual, though, Owen is at all times the epitome of unflappability, and his calm, sensible, highly intuitive approach eventually leads him to the culprit. Recommend this droll and amusing novel to fans of Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody series (Pearce is Peters'equal to evoking bygone Cairo) or to anyone who enjoys the comic mystery. --Booklist
Read an Excerpt
The Snake Catcher's Daughter
A Mamur Zapt Mystery
By Michael Pearce
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 1994 Michael Pearce
All rights reserved.
One evening when Owen got home he found a girl in his bed.
"Hello!" he said. "What's this?"
"I'm a present," she said.
"We can go into details later."
"A member of the British Administration is not allowed to accept presents," he said, stuffily.
And not altogether honestly. For the Mamur Zapt, Head of Cairo's Secret Police, was not, strictly speaking, a member of the British Administration but a member of the Egyptian Administration; and whereas the British, under Cromer's strait-laced regime had not been allowed to accept bribes, the Khedive's servants had always taken a more relaxed view.
"All the world knows about your Zeinab," said the girl, pouting.
Owen rather hoped that all the world did not know about Zeinab and was more than a little surprised that the girl did.
"Ah, yes, but she is not a present."
"I don't need to stay a present," said the girl.
"Off you go!"
"Like this?" demanded the girl, pulling the sheet back.
Underneath she was completely naked.
"If that's the way you came."
The girl, rather sulkily, rose from the bed and picked up a dress that was lying across a chair. A European dress, but was she European? Such questions were on the whole unprofitable in cosmopolitan Cairo. A Levantine, say, and a beautiful one.
Owen began to wonder if perhaps he should make more of an effort to get to the bottom of this attempt to bribe him. Bottom, as a matter of fact, was exactly what he was contemplating just at this moment ...
* * *
"Oh yes?" said Zeinab belligerently when he told her.
"Oh yes?" said Garvin, the Commandant of the Cairo Police Force, sceptically.
"Oh yes?" said everyone in the bar when he happened to mention it. "What happened next?"
"She put on her veil and left," said Owen with a firmness which did not altogether, unfortunately, dampen speculation.
"Leaving her honour behind her?" suggested someone.
"I wouldn't have thought so."
Leaving behind her, actually, a small embroidered amulet, the sort of thing you could pick up in one of the bazaars. Inside it was a single quite respectably sized diamond. Perfume stayed on his fingers long after the girl was gone.
* * *
"So that is why you told everybody," said his friend, Paul. Paul was ADC to the Consul-General and wise in the ways of the world; wise, at any rate, in the ways of protecting your back.
"People must always be attempting to bribe you," observed Paul.
"Not so much now," said Owen. "When I first came, certainly."
He had been in post for nearly three years.
"And it has taken them all that time to find out?" said Paul, marvelling.
"That I couldn't be bribed?"
"That you weren't worth bribing."
"Someone," Owen pointed out, hurt, "has apparently still not found out."
"Yes," said Paul. "Odd, isn't it?"
* * *
The next morning one of the orderlies came in great agitation.
"Effendi," he said, "the Bimbashi's donkey is not here."
Owen laid down his pen.
"Someone's stolen it?"
"No, no. It has not been here all morning. The Bimbashi has not come in."
This was unusual. McPhee, the Deputy Commandant, always came in.
"A touch of malaria, perhaps," said Owen, picking up his pen again. "Send someone to find out."
A buzz of excited chatter outside his door told him when the someone returned.
"Effendi," said the orderly, with a long face, "the Bimbashi's not there."
"He has not been there all night," put in another of the orderlies.
"Hm!" What members of the Administration did in the night was their business and it was normally wisest not to inquire. McPhee, however, was not like that. He was very puritanical; some would say undeveloped. He was the sort of man who if he had been in England would have joined that strange new organization, the Boy Scouts. After some consideration, Owen went in to see Garvin.
Garvin, also, took it seriously.
"He'd have let us know if it was work, wouldn't he?"
"It can hardly be play," said Owen.
"He won't be sleeping it off, certainly," said Garvin. Owen thought that the remark was possibly directed at him.
"What I meant was, that he's not one to let his private life interfere with his work," he said, and then realized that sounded unnecessarily priggish. Garvin tended to have that effect on people.
"What was he doing yesterday?" asked Garvin. "Was it something he was likely to get knocked over the head doing?"
Apparently not. The office had been quiet all day. Indeed, it had been quiet all week. The weather, hot always, of course, had been exceptionally so for the last fortnight, which had brought almost all activity in Cairo, including crime, to a standstill.
"You'd better get people out looking for him," said Garvin.
Owen didn't like Garvin treating him as just another deputy. The Mamur Zapt reported — in form, of course — to the Khedive and it was only for convenience that Owen was lodged in the police headquarters at Bab-el-Khalk. However, he quite liked McPhee and wasn't going to quibble.
Garvin, in fact, was genuinely concerned and wasn't doing this just as an administrative power game.
"Get them all out," he said. "They've got nothing better to do."
It was now nearly noon and the sun was at its hottest, and this was therefore not the view of the ordinary policeman. If turned out now they would probably make for the nearest patch of shade.
Besides, what were they to look for? A body? There were thousands of places in Cairo where bodies might be lying and usually it was simplest to allow them to declare their presence later — in the heat it would not be much later — by their smell. There was, however, an easier solution.
"You all know the Bimbashi's donkey," said Owen. "Find it."
* * *
"Look for a donkey?" expostulated Nikos, his Official Clerk.
"You can't have the whole Police Force out looking for a donkey!"
"It sounds bad. Have you thought how it would look in the pages of Al-Lewa?"
Owen had not. He could just imagine, though, what the Nationalist press would make of it. The newspapers would be full of it for weeks. He stuck doggedly, however, to his guns. Nikos changed tack.
"How much are you offering for information?" he asked practically.
"It's McPhee, after all."
"Good God, no!" said Owen, shocked. "We'd have the whole city bringing us donkeys if we offered that. One pound Egyptian."
"I thought, as it was an Englishman —" suggested Nikos.
"And in the police —"
"Two pounds," said Owen. "We'll make it two pounds.
That is my limit."
"It ought to be enough," said Nikos, who believed in value for money.
Word went out to the bazaars by methods which only Nikos knew and Owen sat down to await results. They came by nightfall.
"What the hell is this?" said Garvin.
"It's like a bloody donkey market," said Garvin.
Owen went down into the courtyard to sort things out. Nikos watched with interest. Believing that decisions should be taken where knowledge lay, which certainly wasn't at the top, Owen enlisted the aid of the orderlies, whom he stationed at the entrance to the courtyard.
"You know the Bimbashi's donkey," he said. "All the others are to be turned away."
Within an hour the usual torpor of the Bab-el-Khalk was restored.
By now it was dark.
"You stay here," he ordered.
The orderlies, appeased by the prospect of a few extra piastres and full of self-importance at their newly-significant role, were quite content to stay on. Meanwhile, Owen went down to the club for a drink.
"I gather there's some problem about McPhee," said a man at his elbow.
"Maybe," said Owen, non-committally.
"Not been knocked on the head, has he? I wouldn't want that to happen. He's a funny bloke, not everyone's cup of tea, but I quite like him."
"I dare say he's all right."
His neighbour looked at him.
"Like that, is it?"
Owen gave a neutral smile.
"You're not saying? Fair enough. Only I hope he's all right."
Owen, who had previously regarded the eccentric McPhee as much with irritation as with affection, was surprised to find that he felt rather the same.
"What's happened to the drink this evening?" he asked. "It's bloody lukewarm."
"It's the heat," someone said. "Even the ice is melting."
Owen decided to go back to the Bab-el-Khalk. He put down his glass and headed for the door, spurred on by hearing someone say, "Sorry I'm late, old man. Couldn't get here for the donkeys."
There were, indeed, a lot of donkeys outside the Bab-el-Khalk. Since they were refused entry into the courtyard, they congregated in the square in front of the building, blocking the road. Garvin was just leaving the building as he arrived.
"I hope you know what you're doing," he said.
Unaccountably, there were about half a dozen donkeys inside the courtyard.
"What are they doing here?"
The orderlies looked embarrassed.
"We thought they might be the Bimbashi's donkey," they said.
"You know damned well they're not!"
"It's not always possible to tell in the dark," muttered someone.
"We brought them in so that we could see them better."
Owen knew exactly why they had been brought in. Their enterprising owners, eager for the reward, had slipped the orderlies a few piastres.
"Get them out of here!"
He heard the arguments beginning as he turned into the building.
* * *
Nevertheless, it worked. The following morning it was reported that the Bimbashi's donkey had been seen grazing unattended on the edge of the Place of Tombs. The informant had not actually brought the donkey — which told in his favour — but was confident that it was the Bimbashi's donkey. He had seen the Bimbashi on it many times and, yes, indeed — astonishment that anyone could suppose otherwise — he did know one donkey from another. Owen decided to go himself.
"Why don't you send Georgiades?" suggested Nikos, less confident than Owen that this was not a wild goose chase.
"Because he's probably still in bed."
"He spends too much time in bed if you ask me," said Nikos. "Especially since he married that Rosa girl," he shot after Owen's departing back.
Owen gave a passing wonder to Nikos's own sexual habits. He had always assumed that Nikos cohabited with a filing cabinet, but there had seemed some edge to that remark.
He picked up the informant, one Ibrahim, in the Gamaliya and went with him to the place where he had seen the donkey. It was among the mountainous rubbish heaps which divided the Gamaliya district from the tombs of the Khalifs. The tombs were like houses and some of the rubbish came from their collapse. The rest came from houses in the Gamaliya. This part of the Gamaliya was full of decaying old mansions. From time to time, especially when it rained heavily, a mud-brick wall would dissolve and collapse, leaving a heap of rubble. The area was like a gigantic abandoned building site. Coarse grass grew on some of the heaps of rubble and it was here, contentedly cropping, that they found the donkey.
Even Owen, who was not particularly observant, especially of donkeys, could see at once that it was McPhee's little white animal. He went up to it and examined it. That was certainly McPhee's saddle. It was one of those on which — if you had a good sense of balance — you could sit cross-legged. Apart from that, he could see nothing special; no bloodstains, for example.
He made a swift cast round and then, finding nothing, sent back to the Bab-el-Khalk for more men. If McPhee were here, he would be lying among or under the rubble and they would have to search the area systematically.
Ibrahim himself knew little. He passed through the area every day on his way to work and the previous morning had noticed the donkey. Although a worker in the city now, he had, like very many others, come originally from the country and distinguished between donkeys as later generations might distinguish between cars. He had seen at once that it was the Bimbashi's donkey but had not felt it incumbent on him to do anything about it until word had reached him about the reward. He had seen nothing untoward, nothing, indeed, that he could remember about the morning apart from the donkey. He did, however, say that it was not a place where one lingered.
"Why is that, Ibrahim?" asked Owen sympathetically. "Are there bad men around?"
"Not bad men, effendi —"
He looked over his shoulder as if he was afraid of being overheard.
"Bad women," he muttered, and could not be persuaded to say another word.
* * *
The search went on all morning. By noon, heat spirals were dancing on top of the heaps of masonry and individual slabs of stone were too hot to lift. He gave the men a break in the shade. He hadn't quite abandoned hope of finding McPhee alive, he didn't let himself think about it too much, but he was growing more and more worried. As usual on such occasions a considerable crowd had gathered and he took the opportunity of the break to go among them making inquiries. He also sent some men around the neighbouring houses. None of it produced anything.
He put the men back to work. By about half past three they had covered an area a quarter of a mile wide on either side of the donkey and found nothing. How much wider was it sensible to go?
He made up his mind. It was a long shot — in fact, bearing in mind McPhee's prim, if not downright maidenly nature, it was so long it was almost out of sight, but he had to try anything, and Ibrahim had said —
"Selim!" he called.
One of the constables came across, glad to escape for a moment from the relentless searching among the rubble.
"Go into the Gamaliya, not far, around here will do, and ask for the local bad women."
"Ask for the local bad women?" said the constable, stunned.
"That's right," snapped Owen. "And when you have found them, come back and tell me."
The constable pulled himself together.
"Right, effendi," he said. "Certainly, effendi. At once!"
He hurried off.
"Some men have all the luck," said one of the other constables.
"Get on with it!" barked Owen crossly.
Selim took a long time, unsurprisingly; so long, in fact, that Owen went to look for him. He met him just as he was emerging from the Gamaliya. He seemed, however, rather disappointed.
"Effendi," he said, "this is not much of a place. Why don't you come with me to the Ezbekiya —"
"Have you found the place?"
"Well, yes, but —"
"OK. Just take me there."
"What's this?" he heard one constable say to another as they left. "A threesome?"
Behind an onion stall, in a small, dark, dirty street, a door opened into a room below ground level. In the darkness Owen could just make out a woman on a bed.
"Ya Fatima!" called the constable.
The woman rose from the bed, with difficulty, and waddled across to the door. She was hugely, grotesquely fat and her hands, feet and face were heavily dyed with henna. Her hair was greased with something rancid which he could smell even from outside the door. Eccentric though McPhee was —
"Would the Effendi like to come in?"
"This will do."
"It would be better if you came in, effendi."
The constable watched, grinning.
"This is the police," said Owen sternly, eager for once to assert his status.
The woman's smile vanished.
"Again?" she said angrily. "They had me over there on Monday!"
"This is a different matter," he said hastily. "I want to know the men you were with last night and the night before."
"Ali, Abdul, Ahmed —"
The list went on.
"No Effendi," she said coyly. "Not yet."
* * *
All right, it had been a mistake. McPhee probably didn't know what a brothel was. But what, then, had Ibrahim meant by 'bad women'? And why was this a place where one didn't linger? Why had McPhee come here in the first place? And where was the poor devil now?
That question, at least, was soon answered. Urgent shouts came from the Gamaliya and people came running to fetch him. They led him into a little street not far from the bad woman's and then up a tiny alleyway into what looked like a carpenter's yard. Planks were propped against the walls and on the ground were some unfinished fretted woodwork screens for the meshrebi ya windows characteristic of old Cairo. He was dragged across the yard to what looked like an old-fashioned stone cistern with sides about five feet high. A mass of people were gathered around it, all peering down into its inside. Someone was pulled aside and Owen pushed through. He clung to the edge of the cistern and looked down. McPhee was lying at the bottom. Something else, too. The cistern was full of snakes.
Excerpted from The Snake Catcher's Daughter by Michael Pearce. Copyright © 1994 Michael Pearce. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Michael Pearce was raised in Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. He trained as a Russian interpreter but later moved to an academic career, first as a lecturer in English and the History of Ideas and then as an administrator. He now lives in South West London and is best known as the author of the award winning Mamur Zapt books.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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When Deputy Commandant McPhee fails to show up for work everyone becomes concerned because that is so out of character. Commandant Garvin assigns Owen Gareth, the Mamur Zapt, to make inquiries over the latter¿s objection that this is not a political matter, as those are the only ones he, as the local head of the British secret police, should investigate...................... Seeking McPhee¿s camel as the easiest means of finding the missing cop, Owen locates the unconscious man amidst a pit filled with snakes. The daughter of Abu the snake catcher helps rescue McPhee. When he comes around, McPhee explains that out of curiosity he tried to attend a Zzarr ritual performed by a local witch-priestess, but someone apparently drugged him. The British presence at a local religious ritual causes outbursts and turmoil, but makes the Mamur Zapt wonder if someone is trying to discredit the Cairo police. Could that person be recently released from jail rogue cop Philipides or one of the current law enforcement leadership? The Mamur Zapt seeks the truth, but first must get McPhee and Garvin out of town to prevent a nasty Egyptian backlash....................... The eighth Mamur Zapt police procedural is an insightful tale that provides an intriguing look at Cairo under the British protectorate. The story line contains a delightful investigative tale, but is more a historical novel than a law enforcement book. The characters are well drawn even if McPhee seems too bubblebrained to be more than just a political appointee. The period tidbits are quite enlightening and Owen¿s inquest is fun to observe so that the audience gains a pleasing intelligent tale................... Harriet Klausner