The Bride Box

Written by Michael Pearce
Review by Waheed Rabbani

In 1913, while Egypt’s nominal head is a Khedive, the country is actually controlled by the British High Commissioner. Captain Owen is the Mamur Zapt—head of the secret police—in Cairo. A young girl, Leila, is discovered hiding under a train from Luxor. She informs the authorities that she was sold by her father to a group of Sudanese but escaped before being put on a slave ship. Owen is asked to probe into the matter, for such activity is thought to have been eliminated.

Owen’s colleague Mahmoud works for the Parquet—Department of Prosecutions—which, although staffed by lawyers, investigates crimes. An odious shipment addressed to a Cairo Pasha is also unloaded from a Luxor train. The item is a Bride Box thought to contain the ‘bottom-drawer’ objects of a bride, but instead a young woman’s corpse is found inside. Mahmoud is assigned to the case.

Leila happens to spot the Bride Box and exclaims that it belongs to her elder sister, Soraya. Leila also identifies Soraya’s clothing from the box, confirming the identity of the deceased, so Mahmoud and Owen head to Soraya’s village. There they question a lineup of possible suspects and, in their investigations, uncover much more than slave trading and murder.

While the mystery aspects in this novel are light, the period details of life in the cities and villages, including the poverty and descriptions of the landscape, are extensive. Egypt in 1913 was undergoing tumultuous times, and Pearce brings out the conflict between the various ethnic groups admirably. He presents a balanced approach, with musings such as: “The Egyptian population is struggling under the oppression of the Pashas. Egypt is struggling under the rule of the foreigners. Who were the British to rule his country?”

While this is the seventeenth novel in the Mamur Zapt series, it can be enjoyed as a standalone. Recommended.