The mysterious fall and rise of the Arab crime novel

Marcia Lynx Qualey
Last updated: 28 September 2014

Why are gentleman-thieves and murder mysteries making a comeback in Arabic popular fiction?
When Egyptian novelist and photographer Ahmed Mourad was asked earlier this year, why so few Egyptians were writing crime novels, he said that the genre was new, “and anything new is usually accompanied by a lot of attack and criticism”. Then Mourad paused and corrected himself by saying, in fact, the genre was not new at all.
Indeed, what’s surprising is not that detective fiction is showing a sudden popularity in Cairo and beyond, with Mourad’s books as top-sellers, but that the genre has been relatively dormant for the last several decades.
Detective fiction has had a long relationship with Arab readers. It is in “A Thousand and One Nights” that an early forerunner of crime fiction first appears. In “The Three Apples”, a fisherman discovers a locked chest near the Tigris River and sells it to the caliph, Harun al-Rashid. Inside, the Abbasid ruler finds the body of a young woman hacked to pieces and orders his vizier to solve the crime in three days. If he fails, the vizier will be executed.
It was centuries later, when the European state was solidifying its criminalisation procedures, that the genre was fully born, and these detective stories got an enormous welcome in Arab-majority countries. Schoolboys across the region, particularly in Beirut and Cairo, snatched the Arsene Lupin novels off book carts. Key writers like Tawfiq al-Hakim and Sonallah Ibrahim write about devouring the Lupin series as schoolboys.
Arsene Lupin strikes a chord
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels, and the English “find-the-crook” version of detective novels were also popular. But Maurice Leblanc’s gentleman-thief Lupin struck the deepest chord, and was one of the most famous popular fiction figures in the 20th century Egyptian literary imagination.
The first Arabic translation of an Arsene Lupin adventure was published in 1910. Thousands of other crime novels followed. Commentator Jonathan Guyer has called the period from the 1890s through the 1960s “the golden age of illicit crime fiction translation“. These translations were not just widely read, but influential.
Indeed, in an interview with The Paris Review, Egypt’s Nobel Literature laureate Naguib Mahfouz said that his earliest literary influence was Hafiz Najib, another popular thief and jailbird who authored 22 detective novels. The boyhood experience of reading Najib’s “Johnson’s Son”, Mahfouz said, changed his life. Elements of this influence can be found in Mahfouz’s 1961 novel, “The Thief and the Dogs”.
But detective novels weren’t just big in Cairo and Alexandria. They were widely read across the Levant, and also became a popular genre in Algeria, where they were taken up by Francophone authors like Yasmina Khadra, Mohamed Benayat, and Boualem Sansal. This isn’t surprising, Adam Schatz writes, as “The Algerian civil war has been, in a sense, one big murder mystery“.
The Algerian scene has been particularly dominated by Yasmina Khadra, who long kept his real identity (Mohammed Moulessehoul) secret. Khadra’s Inspector Llob books weren’t just popular in Francophone Algeria, but in translation as well. Like the Algerian civil war, Khadra’s books were marked by extreme violence. Other Algerian crime novels which followed – such as Anouar Brahem’s gripping “Abduction” – have a similar strain of extreme violence.
Lebanese novelists have also viewed the detective genre through their particular lens. In “White Masks”, Elias Khoury crafts a detective novel of sorts, wherein a nameless journalist attempts to track down the murderer of everyman civil servant Khalil Ahmad Jaber. What’s different in Khoury’s novel, translated into English by Maia Tabet, is that the killer is never found, and in fact we’re told that his identity doesn’t matter. What’s important is the violent culture that’s made his murder possible. In this, it’s similar to other Lebanese literary murder-mysteries, such as Rabee Jaber’s “The Mehlis Report”, which was translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid in 2013.
Serious literature?
But it’s the Egyptian scene that has garnered recent attention, particularly when Ahmed Mourad’s “The Blue Elephant” made the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) shortlist. Mourad’s inclusion on the list was controversial, as some observers said that a thriller could not be serious literature.
In any case, Mourad’s work has been selling briskly around Egypt and the region – “The Blue Elephant” is Egypt’s best-seller. It’s unfortunate that the translations of Mourad’s debut novel “Vertigo”, well done by Robin Moger, has not attracted more attention in English. In the book, Mourad’s hero, like in many French detective novels, works at odds with the powers that be. Indeed, his hero is even harassed by police for strolling with a young woman.
It is not only Mourad who has rediscovered crime-writing as a way to talk about contemporary Egyptian problems. Crime-writing has been central to the burgeoning graphic novel scene. Magdy al-Shafee’s first full-length Egyptian graphic novel, “Metro”, is about a bank heist, and also puts the gentleman-thief at the centre of the story. This portrayal of contemporary Egypt must have rattled some authoritarian nerves, as the book was censored, the author and his publisher both fined. It is now available in English and Italian translations, and limited Arabic copies are on sale in Cairo.
A number of the graphic novel shorts in the collection “Autostrade” were crime-novel inspired. This is also true of the graphic novella, “An Apartment at Bab al-Louq”. One of the artists who worked on the project, Ganzeer, told commentator Jonathan Guyer that he was inspired by al-Shafee’s “Metro”, which took the criminal’s part rather than the government’s.
“Of course you could relate to someone opposing the government, opposing the police, more so than you can relate to this idea of a noble police officer who has to solve crimes for the greater good,” Ganzeer said.
It’s excellent to see a return to detective fiction in Arabic. Hopefully, a broader embrace of the genre can both engage a wide spectrum of Arab readers and also lead to new aesthetics and a new social critique.
Marcia Lynx Qualey writes about Arabic literature and literary translation for a number of publications. She blogs daily at