P. Djèlí Clark’s 2019 novella, The Haunting of Tram Car 015, is a supernatural police procedural. It shares its setting with A Dead Djinn in Cairo.
Agent Hamed Nasr of Egypt’s Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities has learned many odd things over the course of his career, but he’s never learned to lay ghosts. Nevertheless, Nasr and new partner Onsi Youssef are summoned to Ramses Station to deal with what’s said to be a haunted tram car. Could this finally be a true haunting?
No. Whatever the entity is, it is not a ghost. It is, however, real. It is definitely hostile.
The investigation promises to be both lengthy and expensive, which means paperwork. Dull paperwork. Nasr and Onsi are not thrilled; they would much rather be doing more exciting work out in the field.
The entity seems likely to be some sort of djinn. Ever since al-Jahiz bored a hole into the realm of the djinn, many djinn have made Cairo their home. If this is a djinn, it is not at all interested in communicating with the two men. This leaves them at an impasse.
It is possible that a Zār ritual, folk magic for driving off possessing spirits, might be the appropriate solution. This is women’s magic, so nothing for it but to find a woman, human or djinn, able to do the heavy lifting for the two agents. This quest leads the two hapless agents deep into Cairo’s world of Sufis, suffragettes, and other idealists.
Sheikha Nadiyaa takes some convincing before she will consent to undertake the task. Despite her best efforts, the entity proves beyond her. This is because it’s not a djinn or any entity with which the Sheikha is familiar.
It’s something much worse.
This is an example of alternate history in which magical tools have granted colonized peoples freedom far earlier than did our timeline’s mundane means. Poking a hole between dimensions worked for the North African nationalists. In this 1912, Egypt doesn’t answer to European powers and there’s a Mahdist Revolutionary People’s Republic in the Sudan.
This is an example of a specific flavour of alternate history in which some fantastical development has facilitated the destruction (or prevented the formation) of the colonial empires that flourished into the 20th century. Other examples include Nicky Drayden’s Temper and Clark’s own Black God’s Drums.
I’m kinda on the fence about the notion that magic is the best corrective to colonialism, but I do find this sort of alt-hist infinitely preferable to that in which fantastical developments extend colonialism1.
Readers familiar with American or even British procedurals may find this a curiously amiable work. Neither of the Ministry agents are given to screaming at people to force cooperation; no recalcitrant witnesses are beaten. One might expect Nasr or Onsi to be a cowboy cop who gets the job done despite the rules. Not so! The two agents follow procedure even when inconvenient and they spend the entire story acting as though they see the people of Cairo as … well, people, rather than a mix of suspects and foolish sheep in need of stern shepherds. The two agents are sometimes surprised and perplexed by the people they encounter, but they never act like too many American cops.
The author doesn’t seem to have much room for fancy footwork, since this is a novella. Still, the plot isn’t linear. Some lines of investigation lead serve only to eliminate possibilities, while chance encounters have amusing consequences for the officers despite being, strictly speaking, not relevant to the main plot. The plotting is nicely done, as are the characters. There’s room in this universe for full length novels but as this example proves, Clark is more than able to provide a novel’s worth of entertainment in a novella.
- If your roleplaying game assumes the extension of 19th century colonialism to other worlds and your tag line is “SF role playing in a more civilized time” then congratulations! You’ve produced a racist game.