The Mark of the Pasha

Written by Michael Pearce
Review by Ann Chamberlin

Shortly after the First World War, Gareth Owen holds the position of Mamur Zapt, head of the budding secret service, in British-occupied Egypt. At the beginning of this case, Owen is given the loan of a still-rare automobile and driver to ride at the head of a procession the Khedive plans to calm civil unrest. Owen is also given a hint that someone will set a bomb along the route to kill as many dignitaries in one blow as possible.

Much is remarkable about this book. Sixteen episodes into this history mystery series, there is not a false beat. No doubt a lot of this is due to the author’s origins in Anglo-British Sudan. In 200 pages, easily read in a day, Pearce is able to capture with a paragraph here, another there, Cairo’s smells, sights and sounds: “palm doves gurgling in the pines,” the black film on trays of sweets that is really a layer of flies. Topics such as Eastern women entering the work force and the origins of terrorism are given sympathetic and not simplistic consideration. The character of Asif, the brother who, while having westernizing pretensions himself, balks at letting his sister go out to work even with Owen’s wife as her boss and who feels the weight of his dead father’s disapproval is particularly well drawn.

The Mark of the Pasha gives us an insightful view into the functions of the hammam, into the lives of carters who deliver messages–and other things–along their routes, and into the quandary in which the British find themselves now that the war is over and they have one of the most ancient civilizations in the world on their hands as a colony. All this is far more than any mystery need do, but makes entertainment feel like a virtuous thing to do.