Sometimes, a book cover, like a painting catches me in my tracks! I may will myself to turn away reluctantly but not succeed. Bowled over by an erratic splash of colour, muted shades and vibrant escapades that challenge me to a mute frolic, I find myself happily mannequined; resting in worlds that encapsulate romanticism and an alluring atmosphere.
In the case of The Final Bet, the world’s first translated Arabic crime novel penned by popular Moroccan screenwriter, Abdelilah Hamdouchi, I sigh with bliss over this wallpaper treat that eagerly exhibits the lonely stubborn glow of a solitary lamplight guarding a haunting alleyway. This, measured by an unexpected brushstroke of a bright blue for a watchful shadow and the unconventional alignment of wall cracks that stay in league with well-worn window blinds for hushed observations of clandestine episodes along its lanes.
Let me say at this juncture that literary products turned out by Arabia Books (UK) are nothing short of classy.
I was riveted by Hamdouchi’s superb storytelling and finished this tale as a bedtime read in just over two hours. Here is a writer who knows how to cut to the chase and hone his talent for pace and plot-structure.
If I had to describe the plot in a paragraph, I would say this: A handsome young man, Othman returns home one night to find the woman he loathes, his wealthy dowager wife, Sofia, 40 years his senior – just think about it, she’s 73 – stabbed to death while he himself sought an affair with a pretty aerobics instructor, Naeema. Through sinister alleyways, a grumpy Moroccan sleuth in Inspector Alwaar must discover the murderer. Alwaar is of the old school, harking back to the 70s and 80s, where the police were considered to be cruel and and as a result, much-feared. They were blamed for thousands of missing suspects and the abuse of human rights through the use of torture. There was always a torture room in the basement of a police station.
Naturally, Othman’s much-maligned love affair lead him straight to the police as an obvious suspect. The plot details the rough touch and intial rudeness of the detectives. The cantankerous sleuth in Alwaar and his colleagues badger their way around witnesses and use occasional force – why, nothing like a violent push or a bullying shout at an old woman in a tenement flat – and it’s all in a day’s work.
Alwaar whose life seems to be very much in keeping with France’s own favourite sleuth in Inspector Maigret also like his French counterpart, owns up to the kitchen bustle of a fussy inquisitive wife. This, for a touch of necessary comedy. I wish that Hamdouchi had developed this specific scene as Alwaar’s fictional wife would have added sharper depth, colour and interest to the plot. However, she fades off quickly as the story impatiently meanders on its way.
I found the sketching of these fictional police characters to be somewhat one-dimensional. However, Hamdouchi was brilliant at developing the psychological makeup of both Othman and Naema with a tireless dogged focus. Were the unlawful couple innocent? Did they really have no hand in the killing? Hamdouchi sketches out the lingering torment that blankets frightened minds and hearts with meticulous ease.
Only the arrival of a stranger and his insistence on new lines of thought, sheds light on the killer.
The Final Bet was translated by Jonathan Smolin.