I have a confession to make: I’ve recently acquired a new guilty pleasure. Through the chance of a cheap mystery paperback coming to me just at the time I needed something to read, I started following the Jack Reacher series by Lee Child. (This has nothing to do with the terrible movie starring an entirely-unsuitable-for-the-role Tom Cruise; which I watched on an international flight even more recently.)
But this review has nothing to do with Jack Reacher, except for the singular connection of the author’s names. Let me explain – while in the library I wandered through the stacks, as one does, looking for writers I follow. In the Mystery section I searched for Lee Child and was surprised to find nothing at all. But I did find The Sleuth of Baghdad, by Charles B. Child. The jacket copy seemed rather interesting:
Inspector Chafik J. Chafik of the Baghdad police was the creation of Charles B. Child (1903–1993), the pseudonym of British author Claude Vernon Frost. As a Flight Lieutenant in the Royal Airforce he worked with Military Intelligence in Iraq during the Second World War. Child wrote that Inspector Chafik is a composite of associates whom he met in the Middle East, whose ‘agile minds’ could “wind through a complicated maze.”
The Sleuth of Baghdad is a collection of some of the many Chafik short stories Child wrote for Collier’s Magazine in the late forties and early fifties. Set in the period just after the Second World War, they bring to life the streets of Baghdad and a host of strong characters; including Inspector Chafik himself, his wife Lelia, his adopted son Faisel, and his faithful Sergeant Abdullah.
Frankly, I expected these stories to be products of the times. Condescending. Maybe a bit of cultural imperialism. Certainly something that would reinforce the prejudices of an American white middle-class audience.
I was wrong.
There is only one European character in all the stories, and he is background – an Englishman put in authority over Inspector Chafik whom Chafik must both appease and work around when necessary. The stories themselves are told from Chafik’s viewpoint and he is most assuredly a three-dimensional character with his own prejudices and weaknesses. But also with immense intelligence, significant courage, and a deep faith in his religion.
In other words, there is no condescension here at all. Baghdad and the people in it are not presented through any of the filters I expected. Instead you walk it’s dusty streets from the perspective of one who lives there and knows that it is those who come from other places who have strange customs and bad manners.
The mysteries themselves are products of the place and the culture and Chafik solves them as such; sometimes going beyond the law as written in order to bring about the justice he believes his God ordains. Each of the stories is a finely crafted example of the mystery short, with all the clues presented and no more than the proper number of red herrings. Each is solved by the application of Chafik’s considerable wit to the problem and, often, the reader is barely keeping up with him as he does.
The endings and denouements often echo British cozies, with Chafik putting the guilty into a position where they must confess if they are to remain true to themselves. But the overall construction is closer to American detective fiction. This is good stuff.
Recommended. Look for it at your library. Who knows? You might find some novels by another writer named ‘Child’…