Marrakech Noir edited by Yassin Adnan

MarrakechSo far I have only had a couple of experiences with the Akashic Noir range of short story collections, each of which focuses on a different city. I found both Prague Noir and Moscow Noir to be pretty mixed affairs, containing some stories I enjoyed and quite a few I didn’t care for.

Marrakech Noir shares some aspects in common with those previous collections I have read – each has an introduction that emphasizes how new mystery fiction is to their respective cultures. In fact in the introduction to this collection Yassin Adnan identifies there as being no more than thirty mystery novels written by authors from Morocco and no short story collections at all.

That lack of a mystery fiction tradition is quite clear in a lot of the stories here and in several cases it would be hard to justify the label at all yet I think when judged as a collection of short stories dealing with crimes, secrets and the life of the city it works really very well.

The first section was the strongest for me with several standout stories that explored identity or contained interesting story beats. I was particularly intrigued with A Noisy Disappearance in an Ill-Reputed Alley which details the investigation into the disappearance of a Spanish director in the city and Other Places which builds to a perfect noir conclusion.

The most poignant story in the second section is that of a mother’s campaign to have the government release her son in In Search of a Son. Perhaps my favorite story in the whole collection is The Secret in Fingertips which adheres to the noir structure and themes and I think manages particularly well to balance those elements with the Moroccan culture elements of the story.

The final section is, sadly, the weakest and unfortunately I think the final few stories largely underwhelm. I did appreciate Frankenstein’s Monster however for its portrayal of how commerce springs up around a graveyard to help families supplement their income and for its clever combination of a film with the themes of the story.

Overall, while this collection is not perfect I think it brings the city of Marrakech to life and helps to capture something of the spirit of the city. While not all the stories will appeal to mystery enthusiasts, I think most are successful and there is a good mix of story styles and themes.

Part I: Hanging Crimes

“The Mysterious Painting” by Fouad Laroui (Bab Doukkala)

The first story in the collection begins with the simple conceit that a Police Chief becomes intrigued by a strange painting that he sees opposite the table he sits at in a restaurant each day. After dreaming about the painting he takes a closer look into the circumstances of the artist’s death.

I enjoyed this a lot and while I have seen stories with similar concepts, I think this is done well. In addition I appreciated some of the cultural details that the author includes and explains as it strikes the right balance between adding color and a sense of place without feeling that it gets in the way of the story.

“A Noisy Disappearance in an Ill-Reputed Alley” by Allal Bourqia (Deb Sidi Bouloukat)

A prominent Spanish filmmaker disappears in an alleyway leading to an international scandal. At first the locals cannot understand what the director was doing in the alleyway at all or who is responsible as there is no sign of a body or a ransom demand.

I found this story to be really intriguing and enjoyed seeing how the situation escalates but I think it will ultimately frustrate those who like clear answers. While there is a sense of resolution and I think an explanation can be inferred, a number of questions remain unanswered.

“Looking at Mars in Marrakech” by Abdelkader Benali (La Mamounia)

The third story in the collection is something of an oddity being set in our future. The main character returns from a four year period working on Mars to discover that the riches he assumed he was amassing are worth far less than he assumed because of hyperinflation. Adding to his problems, his wife has checked out and refuses to work, spending all of her time meditating meaning that money is tight and forcing him to take a job in Marrakech – a city he does not wish to return to.

This is not a crime story though the attitudes of the main character do place him within the noir tradition and we do have a slight mystery to solve with regards why he does not want to return to Marrakech. The solution is perhaps not surprising but I appreciated the story’s style and attitude, particularly in leaving the ending of the story open. Those here purely for the mysteries however will likely be disappointed.

“Other Places” by Mohamed Zouhair (Tabhirt)

A pottery seller invites a talented young potter with a poetical soul to live and work in his home. The seller’s much younger wife and her maid each harbor strong passions for the young man and watch with jealousy as he sculpts statues of young women who have caught his attention, each wishing that they could catch his eye.

This was, for me, a perfect noir story delivered with bite and building to a powerful and bitter conclusion. The women’s feelings of lust and jealousy manifest in some ways that I would describe as ‘exaggerated’ but I think they work within the framework of this story because they speak to the extreme emotional responses these two women have to the situation they find themselves in and to the intensity of the feelings they struggle to repress.

“The Mummy in the Pasha’s House” by Mohamed Achaari (Dar el-Basha)

The final story in this first section focuses on a historical murder that is revealed when a palace that belonged to the Pasha is renovated and a mummy is discovered in a coffin within the wall. A doorman who is a popular storyteller learns of this and shares the story with an elderly woman who has her own ties to the tale.

This story is certainly mysterious and I thought the story of how the mummy came to be within the wall was interesting but what I appreciated most about it was the way it focuses on the idea of storytelling and its importance in Marrakech. This is one of the aspects of the city that Yassin Adnan focuses on in his introduction to the collection and I think this story explores it particularly well.

Part II: The Red and the Black

“A Way to Mecca” by Hanane Derkaoui (Riad Zitoun)

Two thieves are tired of robbing old ladies and decide to try to follow a different path by going to prayers at the mosque. They feel increasingly frustrated when this is not rewarded with some new path opening to them. One day they decide to follow a young man who lives in their neighborhood and has a mysterious job that keeps him out until the very early hours of the morning.

The story is interesting in its discussion of the tensions between the city’s conservative and liberal identities. I found its exploration of the links between radicalism and poverty to be interesting and think it does well to create interesting and complex characters in just a handful of pages. Be aware though that there is little in the way of mystery within this story.

“The Secret in Fingertips” by Fatiha Morchid (Douar el-Askar)

A young and beautiful masseuse is persuaded to seduce and marry the elderly owner of a riad by her drug dealer boyfriend. She is shocked when he tells her that they will kill him so that she can inherit his property and wealth but before long the plan seems to change.

I really enjoyed this story which I think not only speaks well to the physical and cultural setting of the city, it also features some punchy storytelling building to a memorable conclusion. Unlike many of the earlier stories within the collection, this feels like it fits comfortably within the noir tradition – that it manages to do so without compromising its sense of identity is impressive.

“Delirium” by Mahi Binebine (Souk Semmarine)

This very story concerns two men who work as tour guides for Germans who after a heavy drinking session have a motorcycle accident. One man believes he killed a child, the other is certain that the incident did not happen.

The story is so short that to respond in any detail would give away significant chunks of the plot. It is perhaps not my usual sort of story but I think it is an effective tale rendered more powerful and interesting by the manner and tone of its ending.

“In Search of a Son” by Mohamed Nedali (Bab Ghmat)

A couple searching for their son who had suddenly disappeared go to a Police Station to ask them to investigate. Some time later they hear that he had died in a hit-and-run but the father comes to doubt this explanation.

I have read the final few pages of this story several times over and I feel like I am failing to pick up on what the ending is supposed to mean. I am not sure if I am missing the significance of a phrase, not picking up on an implication or that I am supposed to disregard something else. It may even be that it is supposed to be ambiguous – I am just not sure! That may be my problem rather than the story’s but it did inhibit my enjoyment of the tale.

“Mama Aicha” by Halima Zine El Abidine (Jemaa el-Fnaa)

One of the most substantial and poignant stories in the collection, this focuses on a mother’s attempts to get the state to acknowledge her son’s imprisonment for dissent and allow her to visit him. It is a really powerful piece that explores the human cost of imprisonment without due process and while it is not twisty, shocking or mysterious, I think it has memorable characterization and a strong message.

Part III: Outside the City’s Walls

“Frankenstein’s Monster” by My Seddik Rabbaj (Sidi Youssef Ben Ali)

This strange and curious tale begins in a cemetery around which the local children work to sell jujubes and find other small ways to supplement their families’ incomes. Following a screening of the movie Frankenstein panic breaks out when bones are found to have moved in the cemetery, causing worry that a monster is lurking there and consuming the dead. A policeman is sent to investigate but he dies in strange circumstances, adding to the confusion and panic.

I really enjoyed this story a lot and think that the cause of death it uses is very original although it is not fairly clued. I did appreciate the exploration of what life is like for the children of the lower classes and I felt that this story did a good job of delivering an unsettling atmosphere.

“An E-mail from the Sky” by Yassin Adnan (Hay el-Massira)

At first it is hard to see where this story is headed. It begins by slowly introducing us to the various customers and the proprietor of an internet cafe and giving us a glimpse into their lives. A picture begins to build up about how these characters relate to each other but the story only really takes focus in its last few pages when one of the characters receives an email with very specific instructions.

While it had some interesting themes, I felt that the story dragged a little and took too much time to get to its point.

“A Twisted Soul” by Karima Nadir (Amerchich)

Our understanding of what A Twisted Soul is about shifts several times throughout the course of the story as we hear from new voices. It begins with a woman’s story about her teenage pregnancy and the way her life developed from there but we hear several other characters’ tales.

The result is a short story that feels very literary in style with some poetical flourishes. I can’t say that I found it to be particularly interesting – the shifting understanding of what it was about made it feel unfocused and I was left feeling quite unsatisfied.

“Black Love” by Taha Adnan (Hay Sadda)

A young woman is eager to share the news that a black neighbor intends to ask for her hand in marriage but is shocked when her mother responds with a stream of racial invectives. The young man overhears the conversation and this ends their relationship. The remainder of the story tracks how each of their lives progresses from that point.

This story focuses on human drama and explores racial prejudice. It didn’t really read as noir to me however and I think the themes are less powerful than the writer imagines.

“A Person Fit for Murder” by Lahcen Bakour (L’Hivernage)

The final story in the collection is one of the ones that adheres most clearly to a crime story structure, albeit an inverted one. The narrator tells us about a murder he has committed, describes the circumstances and then finishes by answering the question of why he would have done it.

I appreciated it as a change of pace within the context of this collection but I cannot say that I found the crime or the murderer himself to be particularly interesting.

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