‘Bled Dry’ by Abdelilah Hamdouchi
Bled Dry’ by Abdelilah Hamdouchi, translated by Benjamin Smith (American University in Cairo Press/Hoopoe, 242 pages, £11)
“Bled Dry” is the first of a series of thrillers from Moroccan author Abdelilah Hamdouchi commissioned by Hoopoe, part of the American University in Cairo Press. The series focuses on Detective Hanash, a hard-boiled senior police officer in the seedy underbelly of Casablanca. Translated smoothly from the Arabic to English, “Bled Dry” is a taut, expertly crafted and snappily paced thriller.
Hamdouchi started writing crime novels in the 1990s and has been described as “the founder of Arab noir.” “Bled Dry” includes all the features you might expect: Narrow downtown alleys, dingy bars, dimly lit signs, brothels, prostitutes, unscrupulous pimps, drug dealers, Islamic extremists, and cockroach-infested hotels with sagging mattresses and filthy curtains. Bribes, extortion and blackmail are everywhere and nobody’s hands are clean. It all sounds rather clichéd, but Hamdouchi does not overdo it.
Detective Hanash is in his 50s, a peculiar character who is hard to like. He is intelligent, intense and totally devoted to his work. But he is also vain, paranoid, and confrontational. “Those who met Detective Hanash for the first time immediately got a sense of his strange personality, and those who met him on multiple occasions tended to find him quite unpleasant,” we read.
Hanash’s reputation is built on his involvement as the head of the “Grand Campaign,” a major anti-narcotics operation in Tangier that led to the jailing of top drug barons and crooks linked to the government’s security apparatus. But he himself also has skeletons in the closet and is certainly not above taking bribes in Casablanca.
In “Bled Dry,” Hanash is called in to work on the gruesome double murder of a prostitute called Nezha and her lover. Almost the entire first half of the novel is narrated from the perspective of Nezha, describing the sad circumstances that have dragged her into selling herself to keep her family together. While building up tension, these sympathetic passages neatly undercut the overwhelmingly macho social and professional environment depicted. Hanash’s investigation into the killing of Nezha is complicated by his personal connection to the victim, which adds yet more tension to the narrative and means that Hanash wants to get the case sorted as soon as possible. Appropriately, “Bled Dry” is a real page-turner, propelled along by a directness and crystal clear style. Hamdouchi also writes thrillers for Moroccan TV and clearly has a natural feel for pacing.
The book is full of vivid scenes, dropping the reader into a claustrophobic, unforgiving urban pressure cooker of unemployment and overpopulation. Jobless slum youngsters oscillate between the extremes of drugs and strict religious observance: “Criminal activity had increased over the past years due to rising unemployment, violence, terrorism, and access to the Internet, which helped in the globalization of criminality.”
The novel’s sensational, broad brush strokes might imply that it is a frothy, gripping, guilty pleasure. But there are enough meaty social details to give it extra heft. The popularity of crime novels has reportedly been booming among Arab readers in recent years , and with novels like “Bled Dry” it is easy to understand why.