Murder he wrote

David Tresilian , Tuesday 30 May 2023

The British forensic scientist Sir Sydney Smith spent much of his career in Egypt and recorded his impressions in a set of revealing memoirs, writes David Tresilian in an occasional series on books by visitors to Egypt


The publication of an Arabic translation of the memoirs of British forensic scientist Sir Sydney Smith earlier this year has drawn renewed attention not only to the life and achievements of this pioneer of forensic medicine but also to the role he played in establishing it in Egypt in the early decades of the last century, for a time heading the relevant forensic medicine authority.

While the reason for the delay in publishing Smith’s memoirs in an Arabic translation is not clear – they appeared in English as Mostly Murder in 1959 – booklovers have every reason to be grateful to Mustafa Obeid for his translation, published as “The Reader of Corpses” by the Egyptian-Lebanese Publishing House. He has made this book available to Arabic-speaking readers who may not previously have been aware of it, and for English-speaking readers he has put a book back into circulation that has been out of print since its author’s death more than half a century ago.  

As various reviewers of the Arabic edition of his memoirs have noted, as well as having mostly positive things to say about his life in Egypt, where he was sympathetic to the Egyptian nationalist movement in the 1920s, Smith was also involved in tracking down the culprits behind some of the most important killings of the time.

These included the gruesome Raya and Sakina case in Alexandria in 1920, the murder of the Romanian society beauty Emma in the same city in 1921, and the assassination of the then British sirdar of the Egyptian armed forces and governor-general of Sudan Sir Lee Stack in Cairo in 1924. Smith was called in to conduct forensic examinations in all these cases, and the reports he produced for the police and the evidence he gave in court were essential in bringing closure.

He describes the cases in detail from the point of view of a forensic scientist, providing valuable first-hand testimony of how they were solved and the role of both the then British authorities and the Egyptian police in doing so. He provides a fascinating and unusual look at the development of forensic medicine in Egypt in the first decades of the last century, when this field, now taken for granted, was only slowly developing worldwide.

The book is written with humour and literary skill, unlike many of the memoirs produced by other British officials in Egypt at the time. Smith has an eye for the telling detail, as one would expect from someone with a professional interest in clues, and he has interesting things to say about the Egypt of the 1910s and 1920s. Undoubtedly his book should be better known, in its way being a significant contribution to the development of the murder mystery.

Smith was influenced by the same teacher at university who also influenced Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the famous detective Sherlock Holmes. He was also a contemporary of Agatha Christie, herself a trained pharmacologist whose detectives used similar methods to those employed by Smith in his real-life cases.

How many people must have marveled at Miss Marple’s deductions in cases such as “A Body in the Library,” where she discovers the murderer’s identity from the victim’s bitten finger nails? Or Sherlock Holmes managing to make a crucial deduction in the case of “The Adventure of the Naval Treaty” as a result of whether a fluid in a test tube turns out to be an acid or an alkali? Anyone who enjoyed those feats will find a lot to admire in Smith’s memoirs, which describe similarly extraordinary findings.   

Born in New Zealand in 1883, Smith attended medical school at Edinburgh University in Scotland where he came under the influence of Joseph Bell, believed to have been the model for Sherlock Holmes and also the teacher of Conan Doyle. He graduated in 1914 and applied for a job with the Egyptian government as a medical and legal expert. While waiting for an answer, he applied for a second job, which found him back in New Zealand. However, he was then appointed a lecturer in forensic medicine at the Qasr al-Aini School of Medicine in Cairo, arriving in Alexandria by troopship in late 1917 from where he transferred to Cairo.

“The medico-legal section in Cairo, of which I took over control, was attached to a department of the Ministry of Justice called the Parquet, whose head was the Procurator-General,” Smith writes. “The scope and amount of the work was considerable. We had to review practically all important crimes throughout the country; and at the time there were about a thousand cases of murder and as many attempted murders every year.”

“The Parquet was responsible for the investigation of crime, and for that purpose it controlled the police. Its officers, who had the status of magistrates, examined witnesses under oath and ordered arrests. The chief of the Parquet or his substitute decided whether to send a case to the courts for trial, and when he did the Parquet official acted as prosecutor.”

This system, based on the French Code Napoleon, was the one within which Smith worked, though the “medico-legal expert, or specialist in forensic medicine, is not a detective,” he says. “He may use his knowledge and intelligence to help the police to solve a crime… [but] he does not usurp the duties of the police officers who are handling the case.”

“Nevertheless, he sees the case as a whole, not exclusively in its medical aspects. He observes, infers, and even speculates. To him, because of his specialist knowledge, a non-medical clue may have a significance that even an astute police officer has not grasped. His peculiar experience and talents may enable him to deduce the correct interpretation of the facts.”

Important cases: Smith’s ability to deduce the correct interpretation of the facts of the cases that came his way in Egypt is certainly on display in his memoirs.

One of the most important was that of two women, Raya and Sakina, who were eventually found guilty of a string of murders in Alexandria in 1920. So gruesome were the facts of the case that it is still remembered today, having served as the basis for various film treatments, including a 1953 version directed by Egyptian director Salah Abu Seif. Journalist Salah Eissa’s 2017 book Rijal Raya wa Sakina – “The Husbands of Raya and Sakina” – also investigated the role played in the murders by the two women’s spouses.

Smith begins his account of the case by saying that “the bone was human all right. I thought it was part of a leg. I could not tell the body’s age or sex. It had probably been buried a year or so before.” This bone, sent to his office after it was discovered by a group of workmen digging a trench in a side street in Alexandria, was the beginning of the Raya and Sakina case, eventually leading the police to discover 14 bodies buried under a house next to the trench.

“Fourteen adults had been murdered and buried under this house within the space of two years,” Smith discovers. “The police had no inkling of the crimes until the road trench caved in and the workmen found the single bone.” All the bodies were of women, whom it later turned out had been lured to the house under false pretences and then murdered and stripped of their possessions. Raya and Sakina were put on trial for murder along with their husbands, with all four of them subsequently being found guilty.

Writing on this and other cases, Smith says that forensic medicine was especially important because the evidence it provided could not lie, unfortunately not always the case with living witnesses. He gives an example of a case in Alexandria where two witnesses swore that they had seen a man shot and killed by another man, with the police concluding that this was an open-and-shut case and the second man would be found guilty of murder.

“However, I could see at a glance that something was wrong,” Smith says, having been sent the dead man’s clothing by the Parquet. “The bullet holes were there all right… but the bloodstaining was confined to the parts of clothing that would have been in contact with the wounds. The rest was not stained at all. This could only mean one thing. If the victim had been upright when he was shot, he had fallen immediately and not run away. If he had stayed on his feet the blood would certainly have run down his legs. The alleged eye-witness story of the hundred yards run between wounds was plainly false.”

The case collapsed in court as a result of this important forensic evidence, and the alleged killer was acquitted.

Perhaps the most important of all the cases mentioned in Smith’s book from a political point of view is the assassination of Sir Lee Stack in Cairo in 1924. While being driven home from his office in heavy traffic, Stack’s chauffeur had been obliged to stop, with this allowing a group of men nearby to shoot him as he sat in the back of the car. It was one of the most daring of the many political assassinations carried out in Egypt in these years.

Smith’s role was to help the police to identify the killers by examining the bullets. “I examined the car, reconstructed the crime, and considered the material evidence. This consisted of nine cartridge cases found at the scene of the crime and six bullets that had been extracted from the bodies of the victims.”

Noting the presence of a “scratched groove” on the bullet that had killed Stack, Smith says that he had seen similar bullets used before in other political assassinations. “When I compared the bullet microscopically with the other crime bullets in my collection, I was sure that the Colt 32 that had killed the sirdar was the same weapon that had been used in previous political murders and attempted murders.”

Eventually two brothers were arrested as they tried to escape Egypt to Libya by train, and four automatic pistols were found in their possession. Examining these, and the bullets fired by one of them, “I was able to say with absolute certainty that this pistol and no other had fired the bullet that had killed the sirdar,” Smith writes.

Even more importantly, the arrest of the brothers had led to other members of the group behind the assassinations, which according to witnesses included then Minister of Education Ahmed Maher and Under-Secretary of State for the Interior Mahmoud al-Nokrashy. Both of these men were put on trial for suspected involvement in Stack’s assassination in 1926, with both being later acquitted. Smith comments that he was comforted by this verdict as a colleague in the forensic medicine service, Mahmoud Maher, was the brother of one of the accused.

“He was working in my laboratory all the time I was making the investigations [into forensic evidence against his brother]. It must have been equally embarrassing for him, but throughout the whole proceedings his behaviour was impeccable,” Smith writes. Perhaps ironically, both Ahmed Maher and Mahmoud al-Nokrashy were themselves assassinated later in 1945, when Maher was prime minister, and 1948, when al-Nokrashy was occupying the same office.

Smith’s book contains details of other cases that came his way in Egypt in these years, recounted to illustrate his pathbreaking forensic investigation of bullets and ballistics in political assassination cases as well as a whole range of clues from clothing to half-eaten meals in more mundane ones.

He also mentions what for him was doubtless one of the most important outcomes of his Egyptian years in the shape of what was to become his standard textbook of forensic medicine. This book, going through multiple editions, was still in use as late as the 1960s. The first edition appeared in Arabic in Cairo in 1924, with the Arabic translation being handled by Ahmed Bey. The book “filled a long-felt want, there being no other book in Arabic on the subject,” and “my fellow author and I were honoured by an invitation from King Fouad to attend Abdine Palace to receive his congratulations.”

Looking up later English-language editions of this book today, one finds that many of the cases mentioned come from Smith’s Egyptian experiences.

“We have in Great Britain something between 130 and 150 murders a year, an average of about three per million of the population, infinitesimal compared with the half million or so indictable offences known to the police,” Smith says in concluding his memoirs. “Murder is not a great problem in this country… [and] the attention directed to this crime is out of proportion to its social significance.”

Something similar could have been said about Egypt when Smith worked there in the 1920s. Many readers finishing his fascinating memoirs will be glad that he gave his time to it nonetheless.


Qara’i al-juthath: mudhakirat tabib tashrih britani fi misr al-malakiyya, trans. Mustafa Obeid, Cairo: Dar Al-Misriyya Al-Lubnaniyya, 2023; Sydney Smith, Mostly Murder, London: Harrap, 1959.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 1 June, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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