The Cairo Diary by Maxim Chattam
Modern day France. A woman, Marion, sees something she should have never laid eyes on, in her job as a secretary to the morgue. She is hidden away by the authorities under threat of danger, in the sanctuary of the religious community on Mont St Michel. There she is welcomed in differing ways by the 'natives', and by a coded message, and seemingly shadowy dealings, most of which she could do without. They might just be part of her paranoia playing on her mind, but before long she finds something else she perhaps ought not to have seen.
For hidden in a book ostensibly seeming to be a Poe short story, is a handwritten diary, recording a horrific stretch of crimes against children, in Cairo in the 1920s. The charismatic narrator, British policeman Jeremy Matheson, comes alive to Marion in these pages, and she gets wrapped up in following the investigation, which becomes more sinister as it goes along.
What we have then is a brace of intriguing stories, and it's very pleasant to report both are superlatively done, as is the weft of the two. You spend an awfully long time wondering quite what Marion saw to deserve her witness protection-style exile, alongside sharing her angst at the thought of a whole winter on the barren, semi-populated Mont. You also get a retelling – there is hardly any effort made to offer the original – of Matheson's personally told story, and that grips you equally as you wonder what direction that plot is going to take.
Also, of course, there must be more to the connection than the seemingly chance discovery of the document. And what that might be will hopefully tax the most avid thriller writer.
I really appreciated the way this book had such an unshowy readability. The paragraphs range from the lengthy to the very short, and when they break down to a small level they help the book zip along, and the small print flows past one at a surprising pace. There's only the one occasion when the writing is prodded hard in the direction of an awkward cliff-hanger; elsewhen the mix of two stories, and the smart way they have been divided, is also to the writer's credit.
He seems a very kind chap, too, providing us with an author's note at the beginning, suggesting film soundtrack CDs to play alongside the reading of it, just as he used for the writing. I don't think the book needs any such embellishment, anyway – the snappy characterisation, the sheer oddness of the Egyptian investigation, and the woman breaking out from her semi-confinement while potentially finding more trouble for herself, are all commendable selling points.
I'm not convinced I came away from the descriptions of Mont St Michel with an accurate mental picture, but more fool me for not making more of an effort to actually get there in real life before now. The book doesn't rely on complete veracity in Cairo, but it all seems perfectly realistic, from the colonialist approach held by some characters to the wilder assumptions others make.
The pace of the book is judged just fine – never does one story take an unwelcome precedence, and the mystery on either side of the eight decade divide is very good – even though the population of the Brittany-set one is so small. You'll just have to believe me, however, that it was the protagonist in Egypt I managed to second guess at the midway point, if not exactly the how, why, where and when.
I still left the book wondering quite how small the handwriting must have been for her to tote such a volume around with her all the time – it must have been quite heavy, and Matheson seems a much more verbose and woolly writer than our author.
I don't think it mattered much that I was ending up nodding along to the clues I'd subliminally clicked on regarding the Egypt mystery, as throughout there is a strong sense of Chattam being in control of his stories and their telling. To repeat, the storytelling is not showy or overtly literary, or given any strong style that might detract from the pleasure of the telling, and it is as an entertainment, if not a completely unfathomable mystery stumper that it gets a strong Bookbag rating and recommendation.
I would like to thank Pan for sending us a review copy.
Another French thriller in translation you should enjoy is This Night's Foul Work by Fred Vargas.
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