Grief-stricken over the death of his wife, Lord Alistair Worthington founded the Hermetic Brotherhood of Al-Jahiz. He hopes that the society can re-discover the occult secrets with which the famed Al-Jahiz restored magic to the world. As founder, he is the Grand Master — of course. Some of his followers are as sincere as he is. Others merely crave proximity to the man’s wealth and influence.
Motives don’t matter in the end, because everyone present at what turns out to be their final meeting is brutally murdered, burned to death by a fire that consumes flesh but not clothing.
Supernatural murder is the province of the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities. Special investigator Fatma el-Sha’arawi is assigned the case. Worthington was an important man, both in Cairo and abroad; a quick solution is highly desirable.
Unfortunately, the evidence with which Fatma has to work is slender. Nobody in the room survived (unless the murderer and their confederates were in the room when the catastrophe unfolded). Witnesses outside report seeing a figure fleeing. However, the fugitive was robed and masked, so eyewitness identification is impossible. Nothing for it but to resort to painstaking investigation into Worthington, his Brotherhood, and their activities before the massacre.
Soon afterward, a masked figure calling itself Al-Jahiz soon begins rabblerousing in Cairo, complaining of the inequities that still plague Egypt decades after the restoration of magic allowed the Egyptians to throw off their colonial shackles. The masked rabblerouser claims to have slaughtered the Brotherhood. Case solved!
Al-Jahiz or not, the rabblerouser commands powerful magic, and arresting them is far easier said than done. Indeed, preventing them from conquering the world may prove impossible.
Some sources call this book three of the Fatma el-Sha’arawi series but since she is not the protagonist of and barely appears in The Haunting of Tram Car 015, I don’t like the name chosen. Try again, please.
I doubt the author intended the following conjecture, but here it is: Al-Jahiz, in restoring magic and bringing back the djinn and all the other supernatural entities, may have accomplished the occult version of the Singularity. (Remember the Singularity? It used to be in all the SF books.) Al-Jahiz may have shattered the colonial empires of the 19th century, but in the long run — decades or perhaps a century — it may turn out that he has released eldritch horrors that cannot be tamed.
From the perspective of the colonized, this may not necessarily have been a bad trade-off.
Speaking of colonial overlords, one might expect the various European powers to re-assess their views of the once-colonized in light of having been pushed out of Egypt and India and other places by heretofore unknown arcane arts. In fact, this does not seem to be entirely true: a young British gentleman encountered early in the narrative is utterly convinced Egypt’s ancient rulers were “flaxen-haired relatives to Anglo-Saxons.” This seems as absurd as some modern Briton blathering on about the glorious empire and independence well after the winds of change have scoured the empire down to eroded rubble and with England dependent on uninterrupted trade with the Continent … but I suppose authors will have their little jokes.
Early in the novel, Fatma is given a subordinate named Hadia, another woman. One might expect the unconventional Fatma to welcome another woman into the ranks of the Ministry, but that’s not exactly how it plays out. It seems even for the most steadfastly nonconformist person can have problems shedding established cultural blinkers. As it turns out, this matters in detective work.
This book is a sorcerous police procedural (which later veers into an exploration of an existential threat). The author plays fair, by mystery standards, giving us all the necessary clues; I spotted the likely suspect early on. Not that this detracted in any way from my enjoyment of the book. As one would expect from the author’s earlier books, the setting and characters are engaging. I look forward to further installments.