The novel “Effendi” by Jon Courtenay Grimwood was published for the first time in 2002. It’s the second novel in the Arabesk trilogy and is the sequel to “Pashazade“.
Ashraf (Raf) al-Mansur was named Chief of Detectives of the Police in El Iskandryia (Alexandria of Egypt) in the Ottoman Empire but his first case quickly turns out to be a big headache. An investigation leads to the discovery of the past of Hamzah Effendi, the richest man in the city and the father of the girl Raf was supposed to marry.
Hamzah Effendi ends up being charged with war crimes in a case that goes far beyond the borders of the Ottoman Empire and draws the attention of both European powers and the USA. International political clashes start provoking chaos in El Iskandryia when various nations start using a number of means to increase their influence in North Africa.
The Arabesk trilogy is a ucronia in which the war that broke out in 1914 didn’t turn into World War I but ended in 1915. One of the consequences of the limited war is that Germany remained a great power and the Ottoman Empire never collapsed. Among the Provinces of the Ottoman Empire there’s Egypt and in the city of Alexandria, called El Iskandryia, the plot of “Effendi” is developed.
“Pashazade” was mainly focused on the story of the protagonist Ashraf al-Mansur called Raf, while leaving unresolved part of the mysteries existing around his life. In “Effendi” you can notice immediately that much more space is given to other protagonists, especially Hamzah Effendi. Once again, Jon Courtenay Grimwood alternates the narrative of past and present events.
“Pashazade” showed little of the world in which the Arabesk trilogy is set and above all the differences from our world and for a ucronia this seemed to me a limit. In “Effendi” Jon Courtenay Grimwood uses the events around Hamzah Effendi to expand the story far beyond El Iskandryia, the Ottoman version of Alexandria of Egypt.
The world of the Arabesk trilogy was spared the atrocities of the two world wars but that doesn’t mean that the last century was spent in peace. In “Effendi” a series of flashbacks tells in a sometimes very crude way the story of a group of children soldiers in a war fought in Sudan.
These are key events in Hamzah Effendi’s story because of the war crimes allegations against him. They’re also used by the author to show us the foreign policy of the European powers and the USA and develop an important part of “Effendi” connected to political issues.
For this reason, “Effendi” is a novel developed on various levels as the storyline continues to be connected to the protagonists but the one concerning the city of El Iskandryia is expanded and even more the one about international relationships. The stories that began in “Pashazade” are still important, so much that some events are revisited in the second novel from another character’s point of view, but they’re used to develop a novel that’s very different from the first one.
The result is that in “Effendi” the Chief of Detectives’s office is for Raf almost an excuse to dig into Hamzah Effendi’s past. The novel is far less a thriller than the first one and much more oriented to political and social issues. Jon Courtenay Grimwood shows even more El Iskandryia’s double face, in its normal life and after the outbreak of a serious crisis.
This time Raf has to handle himself not only among local criminals but also among foreign diplomats seeking to increase their countries’ influence in North Africa. His investigation into Hamzah Effendi doesn’t help her relationship with Zara and sometimes Raf has to resort to the help of his genius niece Hani. They form a trio of characters really out of the ordinary and although the author reveals something new about them above all Raf still remains in many ways a mystery.
I personally enjoyed “Effendi” more than “Pashazade” but that doesn’t mean that the second novel is better than the first one. The point is that I read the second novel having a pretty clear idea of what to expect, instead I read the first one having in mind the labels used to classify it but then realized that it was one of the cases where labels can be a limit or even misleading.
“Effendi” is not perfect and in particular I found the part about Hamzah Effendi’s trial mediocre. Without going into the details, I just say that it seemed to me a kind of bad copy of a”Perry Mason” episode. The only positive thing is that it’s a short part so it doesn’t spoil a novel that in many other ways is really intriguing. You need to read it after “Pashazade” but if you find their themes interesting I recommend reading them both.