How Jamal Mahjoub’s life of crime writing has paid off

Jamal Mahjoub talks to Ben East about why coming up with an alter ego – Parker Bilal – was the way to find a new audience via his series of Cairo-based thrillers.

The Sudanese-British author Jamal Mahjoub. Courtesy Jamal Mahjoub
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It’s hard to “make it” in the literary world. Most authors would probably consider it a big achievement to get published at all, let alone have a seven-book, 15 year-career in which they are praised by critics for “beguiling narratives” and “illuminating statements about the human condition”.

But those reviews of Jamal Mahjoub’s work were way back in 2006, and dedicated followers of his were entitled to wonder what the Sudanese-British author was up to. The answer, when it came in 2012, was thrilling.

Mahjoub had reinvented himself as Parker Bilal, beginning a series of crime novels starring a Sudanese private detective named Makana living in pre-September 11 Cairo.

The escapades of Makana were so compelling, both for readers and Mahjoub, that he’s already onto his third tale, The Ghost Runner, out this month.

“People know Parker Bilal better now, and I don’t have a problem with that,” he says from his Barcelona home. “But writing under his name is quite deliberate. By definition, it references both East and West, and it allowed me to approach these stories in the same way, straddling both ‘sides’ and cultures. After all, my audience is naturally going to be largely anglophone, but they’re reading about the Middle East. Plus, it’s fun to be two people. Parker is definitely more optimistic than Jamal.”

There’s also the unspoken suggestion that Mahjoub can find a much wider audience writing crime as Bilal. Not that the Makana series is a cheapening of his art – far from it. The real joy of these mysteries is that they delve deep into the political situation in Egypt and what Mahjoub calls the “fascinating mix of ancient and modern” that he experienced first-hand when his parents moved to Cairo in the 1990s. Just like the very best Scandinavian thrillers from Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson, the social and political contexts of his stories are as important as the crimes ­themselves.

“The best crime fiction has always been written with a strong moral sense, looking at society from top to bottom,” he agrees. “So with The Ghost Runner, it’s women, honour killings and extraordinary rendition which Makana has to work through – issues which really interested me.”

The Ghost Runner is also the first Makana book to take place after September 11, and the third of a series of 10 books that will take the detective right up to the 2011 revolution in Egypt. Mahjoub admits that he’s actually apprehensive about reaching that point too quickly as “it’s still not exactly clear what’s going on”.

“If you start at 2001, we’ve come to the end of an extraordinary decade,” he adds. “What I want to make sure people understand from The Ghost Runner is that, from a Middle Eastern perspective, September 11 happened within a context of continuing issues rather than being an unconnected event. Part of the point of the series is to try to make English-speaking readers see things differently.”

• The Ghost Runner (Bloomsbury) is out now