PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
Cover design: Marie Lane
WH Auden wrote that the central plot idea of the detective story is to threaten, then restore, the Golden Age. One of the strengths of Andrew Killeen's powerful historical thriller is that the Golden Age on display is one alien and yet terribly familiar: the Baghdad of Harun al-Rashid, as remembered through the lens of the Thousand and One Nights. Abu Nuwas, the detective here, is both one of the most important of Arabic poets – he wrote in Arabic, but was Persian by birth – and a character who recurs in several tales of the Nights. He was famous both for deep knowledge of the Koran, and for the way his verse subverted both classic forms and religious language to celebrate drinking, bisexuality and falconry: a sometimes licensed, often imprisoned dissenter from a regime which used orthodoxy as a tool of statecraft.
Here, accompanied by the scholar and thief who becomes his sidekick and author of the Nights, he sometimes solves mysteries by hard application of his intellect and sometimes merely by wandering into trouble and coming out the other side with information.
In one sense, this is a classic use of the detective-story form – the apparently unconnected mysteries that combine, the likely suspect who becomes a victim, the detective framed for the crimes investigated. In another, it is a celebration both of the Islamic world at one of its peaks and the sudden reversals of fortune that characterise its best-remembered product. Killeen appropriates cheerfully, but with a consciousness that what is at stake is the common cultural heritage of humankind. He is providing us with a splendid piece of entertainment; he is also making a sly but important point.
The narrator, Ismail, is a Cornish peasant carried off by slavers. He has acquired, in the heart of the empire, both his freedom and a sense of the world and its possibilities that he would never otherwise have found. There are always complexities – and, through them, we negotiate our way to some sort of righteous truth.
Abu Nuwas, ‘the Father of Locks,’ is one of Islam’s greatest classical poets. He was also a bisexual who apparently took great delight in snubbing the laws of Islam, drinking and fucking whenever the opportunity presented itself.
Killeen’s historical fiction takes many cues from One Thousand and One Nights, the famous collection of Middle Eastern folktales, some of which feature Nuwas himself. The main narrative – a tale of intrigue in the streets of Baghdad – is interspersed with short stories that build into a rich image of the era.
The Islamic Golden Age is an interesting setting for the novel. Nuwas’ Baghdad existed concurrently with Europe’s Dark Ages. Killeen’s Baghdad is a place of poetry and science, with some surprising liberal attitudes towards sexuality (as well as some illiberal ones), when Islam was still in its infancy.
The characterisation of the narrator – the aspiring poet Ismail-al-Rawiya – and Nuwas are very strong. Ismail’s fascination and frustration with the genius poet is shared by the reader; Nuwas is charming and maddening in equal measure. Some of the minor characters are significantly less well formed, which can lead to confusion over who’s who at certain points.
Despite an occasional lack of clarity, The Father of Locks is an interesting story, and clearly the result of detailed research on Killeen’s part. Abu Nuwas is an intriguing figure whose life offers fascinating evidence about Islam’s historic attitude towards homosexuality.
Built around a variety of historical figures (including the Khalifan Harun al-Rashid, the poet Abu Nuwas and the poet-politician Angilbert), Andrew Killeen’s debut novel The Father of Locks is at once a meditation on the nature of Islam and a complex historical thriller which, like a serpent swallowing its tail, comes to a deeply satisfying conclusion by completing a circle.
In eight-century Baghdad, young children are mysteriously disappearing. At the same time, a dangerously gossipy old woman claims to have had a close encounter with the Devil, prowling the street, burning down houses. Enter Ismail al-Rawiya, a teenaged thief, originally from Cornwall, who after a series of adventures has made his way to the legendary capital of Islam. Whilst breaking-and-entering, he is apprehended, taken before the Wazir and by way of punishment teamed with Abu Nuwas, a poet whose work is famed for extolling the delights of wine (forbidden to Muslims) and the love of boys.
The Wazir demands that this unlikely pairing discover that is going on and, thus, sets them on a path that leads to privation and several near-death experiences as well as encounters with the Khalifah and his court and various inamoratas of both poet and thief. What these improbable detectives discover is an international conspiracy (there are all sorts of contemporary resonances) and a plot that has disastrous implication for Islam.
The Father of Locks is a cunningly contrived narrative in which one tale leads inextricably into another until the final piece is fitted in to complete a most intriguing literary jigsaw puzzle.
It's normally poor technique to begin a book review by talking about a different book, but...
There are quite a few historical detective stories around these days, but most of them are lightweight entertainments -- harmless enough, often quite fun, but not very strong on the sense of history. All else aside, the assumptions and necessities of the detective story form tend to dominate. The genre's biggest claim to some kind of intellectual credibility is Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, but not many other books really want to be compared to that if they have any sense.
The Father of Locks has some chance of surviving that comparison. It's normally poor technique to begin a book review by talking about a different book, but note: the youthful narrator of Andrew Killeen's début novel enters the story by invading a huge, strange library building in search of a lost manuscript by Aristotle. I think that Killeen knows exactly what he's doing there.
Not that his detective is borrowed from Eco's cerebral (but fictional) Brother William of Baskerville. Abu Nuwas is an historical figure, and more to the point, an occasional guest star in the Arabian Nights. He's also a poet and, in this story, an agent of the legendary vizier Ja'far al-Barmaki. Moreover, he's a wildly decadent drunkard, bisexual lecher, violent troublemaker, and lover of falconry. (Most of this, apparently, is derived from his poetry.) But he has an intellectual's grasp of detail, a poet's understanding of human nature, and a sense of justice; when Ja'far assigns him to investigate rumours that Iblis, the devil (who Abu Nuwas naturally claims to admire) is stalking the streets of Abbasid Baghdad, it's with a sensible expectation of success. Not least because failure in Ja'far's service isn't terribly healthy.
To be honest, this isn't the greatest detective story plot I've ever seen; there's a big espionage/diplomatic plot, with one major element that modern readers are likely to identify long before most of the characters, and a big, dark red herring to spin things out. The solution mostly comes from a series of conveniently overheard conversations, providing Abu Nuwas with a string of clues that he pulls together in an extended flash of inspiration. The book's title is misleading, too; it's a translation of "Abu Nuwas", and "locks" here means "locks of hair"; the poet was apparently noted for his hairstyle. On the other hand, his sidekick and Watson, Ismail al-Rawiya, is actually a dab hand with lockpicks (I'm not actually sure about the lock and lockpicking technology seen in this story -- I get a sense of anachronism -- but I couldn't swear to this), cheerfully occupying the Thief of Baghdad stereotype as well as seeking a life as a storyteller, despite coming from Cornwall.
There are also places where Killeen's research pokes through in rough lumps, especially early on, when he is still setting the scene; while Ismail is evidently bright and observant, I'm not sure that he could have the sort of perspective that would allow him to say of a group of people "veterans of the revolution ... they now formed the military class of the regime". Likewise, some of the historical-figure guest appearances are gratuitous (although others are nicely subversive, especially the faintly idiotic Harun al-Rashid). But no matter; the thing that sells this book lies elsewhere, in Killeen's cheerful use of the 1001 Nights pattern. Much of the novel consists of stories told by various characters to explain the background to the plot, or just to explain themselves or to fill the time. At the point when the Frankish ambassador launches into "The Tale of the Horn of Hruodland", I realised that Killeen was showing off, but with some justification. By the end, Abu Nuwas is offering the rather cliched suggestion that telling our stories anew every day "is how we know we are still alive" -- but yes, his characters live through their storytelling.
(Well, most of them. Some die, despite their stories. This is, I should note, a fairly bloody and brutally unsentimental crime story in places. Also, Abu Nuwas lives the decadent poet life pretty determinedly. Caveat emptor.)
Like The Name of the Rose, this novel ends with mysteries solved and secrets revealed to the investigators, but not much justice done; history isn't really a nice place to visit, and if Harun's Baghdad is enjoying a golden age of poetry and prosperity, it's because it's fairly safely under the thumb of an authoritarian regime which uses violence and religious orthodoxy to keep control. Moreover, Harun's rule follows a period of brutal civil war, and another such period will follow his death; the reason that the 1001 Nights so often invokes it as a time of glory is that things were so often so much worse. But Ismail al-Rawiya is an engaging guide, and Abu Nuwas has at least a little of the charisma which he assumes is his right as a decadent poet. Many historical detective stories end up as parts of series, and The Father of Locks ends with that option open; while The Name of the Rose was always the better for standing alone, I wouldn't mind seeing Killeen return to old Baghdad.
A lucky young Cornish lad is enslaved and whisked away to the golden city of Baghdad in the reign of Haroun el-Rashid. Here, he discovers the city life described in the ‘Thousand and One Nights’, gorgeous court luxury and mysterious back lanes, peopled by carpet-dealers, jewellers,and malevolent enemies. This rich novel, drawing heavily on the culture and structures of the 'Nights', twists and winds like the narrative mazes that snake through Sheharazade’s tales.
Ismael, as our white-skinned young captive is now called, meets a character who might well be called the Father of Arab Poetry as well as the Father of Locks – the brilliant and heavy-drinking Abu Nuwas, whose drooping zabb can no longer achieve its former feats thanks to over-imbibing, though when it comes to sexual encounters no-one in this
book falls short of the exacting standards set by the unexpurgated ‘Nights’. The pair alternately riot and flee through the souqs and alleys and the story-line similarly dodges and weaves as Abu Nuwas and other characters regale Ismael with history and fables which take us to battles, monasteries, royal hunting parties, and the legendary literary circles of Basra and Kufa.
But this wondrous existence has its dark side, for rumours are abroad of a flying black devil who is murdering infants and drinking their blood or swooping down to snatch them from the sky. Plus there is a mysterious lost Brass Bottle, possibly connected with the abductions, which it would be perilous to open.
The arrival of a foreign emissary from the Franks complicates matters still further, for the visiting ambassador is a Rus, a fearsome red-headed figure brandishing an axe, who brings with him his fair-haired daughter, for whom Ismael conceives an overwhelming passion. Ismael and his beloved poet succeed eventually in finding the Brass Bottle, and Abu Nuwas’s great intellect is successfully brought to bear on the problem of the missing children. Somehow this complex narrative is controlled and brought full circle in this entrancing and turbulent book, as full of accurate historical detail as any scholarly work, yet as compellingly readable as its great original.
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 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 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 his engaging, for this reader, alas, there were too many riches crammed between the covers of a single book. I found it difficult to keep 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.
Andrew Killeen’s debut novel is a historical thriller with a difference. Inspired by the spirit of The Thousand and One Nights, from which the book takes it structure, it propels the reader on a whirlwind tour of the poetry and politics of Harun Al-Rashid's Baghdad. At the heart of the story lies the relationship between the narrator Ismail, a storyteller and petty thief, and Abu Nuwas, the most celebrated poet of his age. This unlikely pairing is assigned the task of investigating rumours that the devil is stalking the streets of medieval Baghdad, and the plot has everything from murder and secret agents to forbidden cults. If you like your historical fiction full of action, intelligent and well-researched, then you’ll be captivated by Killeen’s interweaving plot lines. With a sequel in the pipeline( which revisits the characters over a decade later) Andrew Killeen is certainly one to watch out for.
No. of pages: 332
Publication date: 12.02.2009
978 1 903517 76 5
978 1 907650 98 7
Indonesia (Pustaka IIMaN Publisher Inc)
Lithuania (Media Incognito),Turkey(Ithaki).