The Father of Locks
Andrew Killeen’s debut novel introduces us to an engaging and resourceful rogue, the court poet and sometimes spy Abu Nawas, the Father of Locks. This is a complex text, constructed of a series of tales within tales in imitation of the Thousand and One Nights, but the linking narrative is provided by Abu Nawas’ sidekick Ismail al-Rawiya, a teenage thief and storyteller who dreams of becoming a great poet himself. Ismail also provides the physical link between 9th-century Baghdad and our own ‘dark ages’ for Western readers. Ismail is a Cornishman by birth, and his journey to Baghdad, via slavery, thieving, and prostitution is one of the many narratives with which Killeen beguiles us.
In keeping with Abu Nawas’ high opinion of his abilities, the mystery he and Ismail have to solve is nothing less than the disappearance of a number of children believed to have been taken by the Devil himself, who has been seen stalking the city’s streets bearing a flask of magical fire. They do this in quite a leisurely way, taking in a number of amorous adventures, heavy drinking sessions, and court socials en route. The subplots are numerous and devious. We are also treated to a tale of the origins of chess, a first draft of the Chanson de Roland, and a commendable potted history of Islam and the origins of its different factions.
While Killeen’s erudition is undeniable and his writing style is engaging, for this reader, alas, there were too many riches crammed between the covers of a single book. I found it difficult keeping tabs on the main narrative at the same time as assimilating the subnarratives and working out their significance for the plot. I am certain Ismail and Abu Nawas will appear in subsequent books and can only hope Killeen has kept some of his powder dry for their next campaign. Recommended with reservations.