(4.5 stars) Twenty-five years after Algeria's independence from France, the country is still suffering from political instability, corruption, and the residual rivalries and hatreds between those who supported French rule during the war (1954 - 1962) and the FLN and other groups, socialist and otherwise, which fought for independence. The devastated economy at the end of the war has not improved, people are living in poverty, religious fundamentalism is growing, the young have no future, and citizens everywhere are casting jaded eyes on those who reek of success.
In this newest installment of the Inspector Llob series, chronologically the "pre-quel" to the series, set in 1988, author Yasmina Khadra (in reality, a male Algerian army officer/writer who moved to France in 2000) turns a spotlight on Algeria's crumbling country and its demoralized citizens. Superintendent Llob, also a writer, is an honest police official who does not compromise. Smart-mouthed, with a cynical sense of humor and an understanding of the ironies of everyday life, Llob manages to stay afloat in the murky waters of Algerian bureaucracy. His assistant, Lieutenant Lino, is absent as this novel opens. He has fallen in love with a gorgeous woman, and as a result, he is spending lavishly on his clothes and appearance, calling in sick when he is not ill, and creating disturbances while drunk. In the meantime, SNP, an urepentant serial killer with no family name, has received a presidential pardon and is about to be released after spending seven years in an asylum and additional years in jail, and Llob cannot stop the release.
When the chauffeur of an influential Algiers bigwig is shot to death with Lino's gun, Lino is arrested and kept incommunicado, even from Llob. Additional murders, suggesting connections to the war-time past, send Llob to rural Sidi Ba with journalist/history professor Soria Karadach, a researcher studying atrocities which occurred in August, 1962, the month following the end of the war. A horrendous massacre occurred in Sidi Ba, and Llob interviews harkis (Muslim Algerians who worked with the French), maquisards (guerrillas who also worked with the French Resistance), mujahids, and people claiming to be members of the FLN, socialist "freedom-fighters," to learn more about the massacre and those who might have been responsible.
Eventually, the events of Sidi Ba and the arrest of Lino converge, and though the details of the plot are extremely complex, the novel is carefully constructed, and the mystery is satisfactorily resolved. Khadra creates well-developed characters, endowing them with human failings and often giving them a kind of dark humor which allows them to survive the violence and irrationality of everyday life in Algiers. His unique imagery gives depth to the atmosphere: A road is "orphaned by the loss of its paving stones," while a light rain "weeps into the city." Multiple levels of betrayal all contribute to the darkest of noir fiction and a vision of Algiers which makes one want to weep for the victims. For those who enjoy complex mysteries set in unusual locations with main characters one comes to care about, this mystery is both challenging and enlightening. n Mary Whipple
Morituri (Toby Crime), US pub. date 2003
Double Blank: An Inspector Llob Mystery (Toby Crime), US pub. date 2005
Autumn of the Phantoms, US pub. date 2006