The pseudonymous Bilal has written several acclaimed literary novels. His latest, The Ghost Runner, continues the adventures of Sudanese ex-pat private detective Makana, who previously appeared in The Golden Scales and Dogstar Rising. Makana’s most recent case takes him from the crowded streets of Cairo to the dusty desert town of Siwa in western Egypt, following the elusive father of a young woman who has been burned to death.
Readers of The Ghost Runner never do learn your hero’s first name. Is his name revealed in your earlier tales of Makana or has he always had this bit of mystery? Why doesn’t he generally share his full name?
It has never been revealed, yet. The naming of characters is a strange and complex business. I found it hard enough coming up with his surname. It literally took years. A name has to say just enough but not too much, and for me Makana does that. I freely admit that I don’t know everything about Makana. That’s part of the appeal for me as a writer. Each book allows me to explore him further. If and when his first name appears it will have to be of some significance.
Speaking of names, how did you choose your own pen name?
That’s a little easier to explain, although again, it took me ages to settle on a pseudonym I was happy with and meant something to me. The mystery is resolved quite simply. Bilal comes from my father’s side of the family, as in it is the name of my great-great grandfather, or thereabouts. Parker comes from my mother’s side and is my grandmothers’ maiden name. This is also significant to me in that my grandmother was quite instrumental for getting me into crime fiction in the first place. She was an avid fan and had a huge collection as I recall. She used to send me books when I was probably too young to understand them.
The Ghost Runner is set in 2002. Obviously, present-day Egypt would be a quite different environment for a private investigator but why did you choose to set these stories in that specific time? Do you anticipate Makana investigating in contemporary Egypt in the future?
When I first visited Cairo in the early 1990s, it struck me that this was a country ripe for revolution—though impossible to imagine how such a thing could happen. I found it fascinating and wanted to write an epic novel, which eventually morphed into a series of novels. I had completed the first one, The Golden Scales, just three months before the extraordinary events of January 2011. That, for me, is the point where past separates from present tense. What we are witnessing now is like the patient waking up on the operating table and trying to come to grips with their predicament. Whether Makana goes on in post-revolution Egypt, or even remains in the country, is still not clear.
You’ve included the hot button issues of honor killings and extraordinary rendition in The Ghost Runner but more as plot devices than as core subjects. Why did you choose to introduce these topics in this manner?
I think crime fiction has always carried a vein of social commentary, and always will. These are issues that are not only controversial but emblematic of the age we live in. They are also well documented and that’s not my job. If people want the facts they are easy to find. This is a novel, but part of what a novel can do is extract an issue from all the noise that surrounds us and allow the reader to simply focus for a time on one aspect of the world we live in. It allows for a certain clarity. At the end of the day a novel is not going to change the world, but it can change the way we see things.
Your description of Siwa makes it feel much like towns in American Western movies with their insularity, dark secrets and, of course, desert settings. Makana is the Clint Eastwood outsider arriving in town. How much did cinematic antecedents like Westerns, or indeed, the samurai films that came before them influence your portrayal of Siwa? Would visitors today recognize the real Siwa from your writing?
First of all, I grew up watching Sergio Leone and all the other Spaghetti Westerns. I mean, we had that and we had the Shaw Bros. Kung Fu movies from Hong Kong. Years later, when I finally saw Yojimbo, The Seven Samurai, and so forth, it was like two worlds colliding—East and West. Cinema in general has always been an immense influence. So, naturally, the image of the lone man riding in from the desert was strong in my mind. I visited Siwa in 2005 and it is a fascinating place, familiar and yet quite unique and special. I took a lot of notes and photographs, so I think the portrayal is fairly accurate for the time. I know there have been changes since, which is one reason I wasn’t keen on going back before I wrote this novel. Perhaps now, though.
Makana becomes certain in this book that his daughter, Nasra, is still alive somewhere. Will your hero have a chance to search for her in an upcoming novel?
Nasra is the unsolved case in Makana’s life. As the series progresses the issue of what he left behind to begin his new life continues to haunt him. I am not clear about the details, but I am pretty sure that Nasra’s fate is going to play a key role in Makana’s life at some point. In the first novel we meet Makana at a low point in his life. He has lost everything, his family, job, country. He is surviving, as we all do, but the past is unresolved and Nasra symbolizes that by her absence. He realizes, I think, that until it is resolved he will never truly find peace.