by Andrew Killeen
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.