Another day, another Orientalist mystery! Andrew Killeen’s book is almost custom-made for the Dedalus imprint, in its exploration of lugubrious living and the nuances of history. Set in Baghdad (largely) around 800AD, this is a very descriptive tale of poetry, rivalry and rooting with its roots in reality. Most of the characters existed, and a glossary at the end of the book provides potted histories of those mentioned.
The problem with this book is – like The One Thousand and One Nights which Killeen claims inspires him – its labyrinthine nature. The plot itself is pretty simple, really: it’s a detective story with the titular Father of Locks (Abu Nuwas, an historical poet who – here, at least – proves Byron and Shelley didn’t have the only dibs on dissolute living) and his narrator-cum-sidekick Ismail attempting to solve murders and mysteries. Except the plot is often shuffled off to the side for a round of storytelling and romance – affairs of the zabb, at least, as Killeen coyly styles the multiple penile peregrinations of the piece.
Being dazzled is possibly a desirable outcome in reading. It’s just a shame that here it seemed to occur in spite of the plot, rather than because of it. There’s a wealth of material here, and the roundabout way of returning – eventually – to the main whodunnit of the piece could be seen as a sterling example of the storyteller’s art in full flight. Except rather than provide a broader view of the land, these continual turns seem to diminish the action.
Abu Nuwas is very much a lovable rogue, but the book – curiously, for all its research – seems to leave the tale-telling to go off half-cocked. It’s a shame, as there’s some excellent characterisation which the book seems desperate to keep just out of reach of the reader. There’s a real sense of muddled-headedness which becomes tiring.
Consider this a visit to the souk: you probably won’t understand a lot of what’s going on, and the sensual nature is wonderful – but just keep an eye on where you’re going, or you’ll be completely lost.