Biographical details about Michael Pearce, author of the 19 titles that have thus far appeared in the popular Mamur Zapt series of detective stories, can be hard to find apart from the few sentences that appear on the covers of the novels themselves.
Michael Pearce “grew up in the (then) Anglo-Egyptian Sudan,” his publishers note, “among the political and other tensions he draws upon for his books.” However, there are few other details about him, and it is not the Sudan that he so carefully recreates in his Mamur Zapt series of stories published between 1988 and 2016 and with perhaps still more to come.
Instead, the stories are set in Cairo in the years immediately before the First World War when the Mamur Zapt, the head of the Egyptian Secret Police, is a Welshman, Gareth Owen, who is drafted in to help solve mysteries often touching on the khedival court as well as on the country’s British occupiers and other communities in Egypt.
As Pearce writes in an author’s note, Egypt was then “a country of many potential masters,” given the ambiguous character of the British colonial occupation that had been continuing for decades, the jealousies of other European powers, notably France, and the fact that the country was still at least nominally a part of the former Ottoman Empire.
“Egypt had four competing legal systems, three principal languages, and several religions apart from Islam,” he adds. “It had many, many nationalities. It was a country ripe with ambiguities. A country bright with sunlight and dark with shadows. And in the shadows, among the ambiguities, worked the Mamur Zapt.”
Even if Pearce himself may be more directly familiar with the Sudan, readers of his books will soon appreciate that he has a detailed knowledge of Egypt that can only have come from frequent visits. More intriguingly, his knowledge of Egypt extends a long way back in time, and reading his novels it is easy to become absorbed in the Egypt of the khedive Abbas Hilmi II, the country’s ruler before the First World War, and the activities of its foreign occupiers, as seen through the cases landing on the desk of the Mamur Zapt.
The background and characters of the series are established in the early volumes, with Pearce returning to tried-and-tested formulas in a way that shows his mastery of the detective story form. Though occasionally rattled, serious disorder scarcely intrudes into the circumscribed Cairene world of the Mamur Zapt any more than it does into the similarly enclosed worlds of Sherlock Holmes’s late-Victorian London in the stories by Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle or Miss Marple’s village of St Mary Mead in the Agatha Christie series.
The Mamur Zapt is often called upon to help solve cases of murder, but these can be dealt with in the 200 pages or so of a standard story. Though moved around or rearranged, the furniture is ready to be put back in place for the next installment and a new brain-teaser for the Mamur Zapt. Once a crime is solved and a mystery elucidated, the Mamur Zapt is back at his desk at police headquarters in Bab al-Khalq or on the terrace of the Sporting Club in Gezira with the reassurance of Holmes returning to his study at 221B Baker Street or Miss Marple to her cottage in St Mary Mead.
Characters move from public to private settings, only stopping off for a change of clothes as they take up position in a limited repertoire of roles. The Mamur Zapt, ambiguously placed between the Egyptian and the British police, is tasked with protecting the khedive as much as he is the British consul-general, and he is as often found in a “native” café in Ataba Square in downtown Cairo as in one of the area’s European hotels.
Like Holmes, he is a master of disguise, being taken as a Levantine “effendi” when he takes off his uniform and dons a tarboush. Like Miss Marple, he can move around almost invisibly and blend in with crowds. The Mamur Zapt works professionally with the Egyptian Parquet (public prosecutor) and with the British authorities, and his sympathies are correspondingly complex. He frequently has to judge the effects of his actions on Egyptian public opinion as well as on his British superiors in Cairo and London.
Like other detective-defenders of the established order, the Mamur Zapt, committed to the values of his job, leaves larger questions to others. Things are complicated, many interests are at stake, and justice does not always entirely get done, even if the Mamur Zapt, alive to the political circumstances, does his best to ensure that crimes do not go unpunished.
Cases of the Mamur Zapt: The recipe is introduced in The Mamur Zapt and the Return of the Carpet, the first in the series.
In this book an attempt has been made on the life of Nuri Pasha, a prominent politician, in Opera Square in Cairo, and there are fears of another attack during a khedival procession. Because of the political aspects of the case, the Mamur Zapt is called upon to assist the Parquet, represented in this first novel as in those that follow by talented young lawyer Mahmoud al-Zaki, in elucidating the circumstances of the attack.
“Can you think of anyone who would wish to kill you,” the Mamur Zapt asks Nuri Pasha, having drawn a series of blanks. “Nuri looked at Owen in surprise. ‘Mon cher,’ he said,” falling into the French used by the Pashas in Pearce’s novels, “Everybody wants to kill me. Tout le monde.”
Unfortunately, it turns out that Nuri may have many enemies, some from within the ranks of his competitors in the country’s political class and others from among nationalists opposed as much to British rule as to the Pashas that benefit from it. The nationalists are also not shy of expressing their views in the newspaper Al-Liwa.
“Owen sensed that Mahmoud found Nuri difficult to handle,” the narrator comments. “Nuri was of the old, feudal society, a grand seigneur in a system that had been corrupt for centuries, aware only of the levers of pleasure and power, experienced, cynical, blasé… For Mahmoud, Nuri represented everything that stood in the way of a New Egypt: conservatism, venality, a disillusion which cut efforts to reform off at the knees before they got started, power to block but not to do.”
Similar thoughts emerge in a later novel in the series, The Mamur Zapt and the Girl in the River. Here the mystery turns on the death by drowning of a young woman who falls from the boat of prince Narouz, a relative of the khedive and somewhere in line to the Egyptian throne, as it makes its way up the River Nile to Cairo. The case looks at first like a criminal matter, and Mahmoud al-Zaki duly arrives to investigate. However, once again there are political overtones touching upon the khedive, the British, and nationalist opinion.
If “clumsily handled,” the case “could be embarrassing. Politically, I mean,” the prince explains. “‘For you?’ asked Owen. The prince looked at him coolly. ‘For the khedive. There is no particular reason why it should be. There is nothing, shall I say, to be embarrassed about. But you know what the press is and what people are. It could be used. Turned against the khedive. Used to discredit him. Would the British government want that, captain Owen?’”
In the investigation that follows, the Mamur Zapt is obliged to use a team of informers to track down the killers of the unfortunate girl, while at the same time having somehow to keep the details out of the newspapers and away from the attention of nationalist forces eager to discredit British and khedival rule. Somehow, too, he must ensure that justice is done, even as Narouz and others want to see the case abandoned, preferring a cover-up to a possibly embarrassing scandal.
The killing is indeed intended to discredit the khedive’s family. “‘You stood for something, prince. Power, privilege, rank, the old order. He [the killer] wanted to sweep it all away.’ ‘I’m all for reform myself,’ said Narouz. ‘But does one have to be quite so drastic?’ ‘I think he felt that it stood in the way of progress. There are,’ said Owen diplomatically, ‘surprisingly many people in Cairo who take that view.’”
Later novels in the series see the Mamur Zapt leaving Cairo for Upper Egypt, where, in The Mamur Zapt and the Spoils of Egypt, he is tasked with protecting Miss Skinner, a well-connected American, campaigning to save Egypt’s ancient heritage sites both from modern-day tomb-robbers and local landowner Marbrouk Pasha but also having an agenda of her own.
In The Mamur Zapt and the Mark of the Pasha, the pre-War setting is left temporarily behind and the novel transferred to 1919 and the arrival of a delegation in Cairo to decide on the future of British colonial rule. It finds the Mamur Zapt, charged with protecting the delegation, in what by now has become a reflective mood. “I question the value of what we do, Paul,” he explains to a fellow official. “The world is changing, and we’ve got to change with it too.”
Pearce has written other novels set in different periods and different countries, but it is to Egypt, and especially its complicated modern history, to which he has returned most often, offering a British insight into what it might have been like to be a colonial policeman nominally filling the role of an Egyptian official in a system built on deliberately opaque lines of authority during the pre-First World War years of British rule.
Michael Pearce, the Mamur Zapt novels, from The Mamur Zapt and the Return of the Carpet (1998) to The Women of the Souk (2016).
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly