The Butcher of Casablanca by Abdelilah Hamdouchi.
And now for something a little different, from Morocco have we have Kasbah-noir. Crime fiction infused with the fragrant spices of the Casablanca souks, there’s plenty of local colour and culture in this new and exciting setting for the murder mystery. Hamdouchi was one of the first writers to address an Arabic speaking audience through crime fiction. This translation by Peter Daniel allows readers in the US and the UK to access a different take on the genre that comes from the particular socio-political background in Morocco and the culture of the Arab world. A lot of this novel is about the relationships between characters, and between the past and the present and even comparisons between mundane and more exotic murder, (most crimes practically solve themselves). This is a competent police procedural, the second to feature detective Hanash, after Bled Dry in 2017. I haven’t read Bled Dry but I have read Hamdouchi’s slightly earlier novel The Final Bet (2016) which was intriguing but this novel is more polished, better at achieving what it set out to do.
The Butcher of Casablanca is entertaining, at times very funny but it always has that thread of social critique about it that pulls the reader up, we are laughing at dark things sometimes. Personally I love this insight into a country I know very little about but if you’re a fan of the type of serial killer novel that reeks of blood and revels in the gruesome thus terrifying the reader this is not for you. This is a much more subtle novel, a more intelligent novel, closer to the literary thriller model. In The Butcher of Casablanca the dark is tempered by humour, the social setting and the investigation are not intended to foster a full on thrill fest. The terror is reserved for the characters in the book, the people of the city, the killer on the loose unsettles a society that is not used to such a crime occurring in its midst. The readers involvement is detached from that fear and the attitudes it engenders, focused more on what the novel says about crime, policing, class and society in Morocco. The mystery alone would not sustain this book told this way, the crime has significance in other ways. It’s a measure by which other tragedies are measured, other crimes, societal norms, even the past:
‘Repression in exchange for security: the ideal situation for reducing crime rates.’
‘New era’ policing is very different from the way it was done in the past, less brutal but also less lucrative for the police. In the ‘old era’, when the Interior Ministry were in charge, the experience of a suspect in police hands was bleak, guilty or not you were likely to confess. Guilty or not you might never return from the police station. It was a ‘nadir for human rights’; illegal detentions, torture and extra judicial murder, there were no come backs. Even to speak of this would have wound you up in jail.
Hamdouchi sets the scene with a recap of the country’s past, of Hanash’s past. Now Hanash is chief of detectives, responsible for the investigation of the most serious crimes in the city. While he might appear to be an ordinary policeman he is a product of that earlier time, came up in one system and now lives in the more liberal other, (although there are radical threats to the new democratic way). This dark past is in contrast with the first image of Hanash, when we meet him here he setting out on a normal family holiday. A workaholic hoping he can some how get out of the trip. It’s also a reminder that the real horror in this story is the scarring of the past, a brutal, repressive unaccountable regime and a rigid class structure not the apparition that is the serial killer who stalks the pages. This is crime fiction as social critique as much as it is a ‘who done it?’
‘To Hanash, the waste picker was barely a notch above a beggar. Despite this, he beckoned to the waste picker, who lurched toward him with his head bowed.’’
‘No one from the sector of waste pickers, garbage grubbers and dumpster divers had been promoted to CI yet… Waste pickers and their ilk were foul and dirty.’
It’s just before 6am Hanash’s wife is busy rousing the family, Tarek and Manar moan but it’s not them she worries about. When they are on the road she may relax but if Hanash’s phone rings now they will not be able to get away to Marrakesh to visit their other daughter Atiqa who has just given birth to a son. Hanash is dressed and finally they are off but before they hit the highway his mobile goes. Hanash must return to police HQ they have a found a body, well half of a body, in a dumpster on Rue Juncor, the chief wants his top detective on the job.
The night before: A man hums to himself as puts the body parts into two plastic bags. Calmly he cleans the floor, takes a shower and dresses:
‘He had eliminated the thing that has been ruining his life and now all he had to do was to dispose of it.’
Worried about being seen with the evidence in his hands he sneaks through the alleys, the bags smell, he reaches the dumpsters, throws them in. It’s done, he is ‘intoxicated with his victory’.
Half of Hanash’s career occurred under the old regime, his real name is Mohamed Bineesa, but they call him: ‘Hanash – The Snake’. Working his way up from officer to inspector and the inspector to detective. The most lucrative time in his career was Tangiers dealing with the hashish smugglers and because of that the family now live in a big house in a good suburb of Casablanca. Under a democratic government prisoners have to be treated like VIPs and pecuniary opportunities are less lucrative. Crime has proliferated, criminals are craftier and fearless, the police rely on CIs. Hanash is not yet fully recovered, he was shot five months ago by an officer he had spying on his other men but the man who stole from a crime scene and could see no other way out. Hanash has changed, his weakness led to him giving up women, the constant in his life is the battle with his wife, as work always comes first, is an epic:
‘At times like this, he thought, marriage was a form of punishment for anyone who adopted a career with the police.’
Naeema reminds him:
‘You’ve never been there when it really counted.’
At the crime scene they have recovered the lower half of a young woman from the dumpster, in her twenties, her genitals have been mutilated. No leads, no witnesses and an investigation loaded with old habits that die hard. As more bodies turn up Hanash has no idea how to catch a serial killer. When an unconnected murder occurs it doesn’t take much to get the killers to confess to the dumpster murders but of course the problem has not gone away, things get very nasty.
The novel highlights the plight of the policeman out of his depth, under pressure for results, but wily and sharp. There’s a lot about the family in the novel and more ordinary crime, however, what the serial killer is up to is an interesting revelation.
The Butcher of Casablanca is intriguing and insightful, unless you’ve read Hamdouchi before I doubt you’ll have read a crime novel like this before.
Hoopoe Fiction, AUC Press, 9789774169687, On sale now.
The Butcher of Casablanca by Abdelilah Hamdouchi.