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Felaheen: The Third Arabesk

by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

(Earthlight, £12.99, hardback, 384 pages, 6 May 2003. Pocket Books, 6.99, 356 pages, mass market paperback, this edition published 4 May 2004.)

It's answers time--or is it? cover scanAshraf Bey is visited by the Emir of Tunis' closest advisor, who asks him to investigate an attempt on the Emir's life. He is, as she points out, an accomplished detective, and the Emir's son--or is he? Raf refuses, but ends up going to Tunis anyway, partly to find out more about the Emir and his family, and partly to find out more about himself. But leaving his niece Hani and lover Zara out of the loop could prove Raf's undoing. After all, he's only human--or is he?

The possibilities abound as Jon Courtenay Grimwood's Arabesk series draws to a close. Raf has by now figured out that the fox Tiri, which we were told was implanted in his head in his childhood, is in fact his own inner voice, making Raf the very embodiment of Grimwood's assertion that personality is an externally constructed thing. In its place, we're given a few hints of a darker aspect of Ashraf Bey, as well as some playful bait-and-switch revelations about his ancestry. The flashback story this time is that of Raf's mother's encounter with a younger Emir Moncef, which offers a few key pointers. Grimwood also throws in a murder on the side to keep Raf busy while he's slumming it in the kitchens of Tunis. Ultimately there's more mystery here than in who tried to kill Emir Moncef, but the murder's resolution proves largely inconsequential. This undoubtedly contributed to the impression I was left with at the end of the book--that irrespective of the action, the attention to detail and the great characterisation, it didn't, maybe couldn't quite match up to the brilliance of its two predecessors. Certainly it's a more disparate tale, which is ironic considering that one of its chief purposes is to tie up the loose ends.

As before, Grimwood leads with several characters rather than just one, most obviously Raf and Hani. The most prominent newcomer is the Emir's eldest son, Kashif Pasha, who invites inevitable comparisons with a certain real-world figure. He's decadent and amoral, but also believably motivated, which is to Grimwood's credit. And moreover, he's not nearly as mad as the Emir, who comes across more as a crafty old codger than the lunatic we might have imagined from mentions in the previous Arabesks. The kitchen staff of Tunis are all roundly depicted, but have less impact on the Emir/Raf/is he? story and on Raf generally than one might expect.

At the end of the day, 'Felaheen' wraps up Raf's story and keeps the reader interested and entertained, and in that it's a thorough success. Nevertheless, I was left feeling not entirely sated. Perhaps it's just hunger for Jon Courtenay Grimwood's next novel.

Review by John Toon.

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