The Unusual Suspects……..

…..The Final Bet by Abdelilah Hamdouchi

The Final Bet by Abdelilah Hamdouchi

Byron once wrote ‘Where there is mystery, it is generally suspected there must also be evil?’. Byron’s phrase is a perfect one-line summary for Abdelilah Hamdouchi’s Moroccan mystery. For this is a whodunnit with additional layers about suspicion, motives and assumptions.

When wealthy 73 year-old restaurateur Sofia is found dead, the suspicion turns to the usual suspect – the husband. And since the husband in question is thirty-two year old Othman, a man who she has plucked from poverty and who now stands to gain everything from her death, it doesn’t take long before the finger of suspicion starts to point in Othman’s direction. But for every detail that seems to confirm Othman as the usual suspect, there’s something else that suggests otherwise. Hamdouchi’s clever novel builds up to answer the question ‘Is Othman the evil behind this mystery, or does the evil lie elsewhere?’ And as it does so, it seeks to answer a deeper question….. in a Morocco striving to reform, offer greater human rights and move away from a police service at the core of human rights abuses, in the battle for freedom of speech between a liberal movement and a reactionary police service, the novel is also a commentary on the state of the emerging democracy at the time – no less a battle between good and evil in many respects, so who will Hamdouchi’s money be on in a final bet between good and evil in his homeland?!?!

Who's Alwaar? If he got the chance to introduce himself, he'd probably just say he's been a criminal detective for 30 years but was never lucky enough to get promoted to commissioner'

'His brother falls asleep every night in the arms of his young beautiful wife. As for Othman, he lies in bed like a cold hard statue, holding a bag of bones covered in a leopard skin'

'If we can't ensure the rights of the criminal, how can we ever guarantee the rights of the innocent?'

Some quotes from The Final Bet

Photograph by Florian Bernhardt via Unsplash

Sofia Beaumarche is a French-born resident of Casablanca. She has a track record of business success as a restaurateur, which has made her wealthy, successful, and a woman with friends in high place. But she also has a track record of falling for and marrying younger men on whom she lavishes money, gifts and luxury in return for one thing – fidelity. And when fidelity isn’t given in return, Sofia Beaumarche has already shown her ruthlessness in ditching her first younger husband. Her second husband Othman is in no doubt therefore about what he must offer Sofia in return for the fact that she has plucked him from obscurity and the miserable poverty in his part of Casablanca’s streets. And Othman does love the new and lavish lifestyle to which he’s become accustomed through his marriage – the only problem is that he’s fallen in love with Naeema, Sofia’s young fitness instructor, and now Sofia’s every word, gesture and touch does nothing more than remind him of the price he pays for the life she buys him – and the end result is that he loathes Sofia and is desperate to escape her and be in the arms of his lover.

He plans his short lived assignations with his lover with care, for Sofia might be 40 years older than him with a body and a face that by turns depress and disgust him, but Othman knows she’s sharp and watching for the slightest hint of any infidelity on his part. As a result Othman’s affair with Naeema is restricted to short, frantic phone calls and the shortest of physical meetings which are arranged for late in the evening when Othman can escape from Sofia’s searching gaze to walk the dog. It’s not enough for Naeema and it’s not enough for Othman either so he faces a dilemma – does he give Naeema up in favour of wealth or does he give up the luxuries that Sofia can buy him for a return to the poverty he came from in a life with Naeema.

And then Sofia is found murdered in her bed. And when Detective Alwaar is brought in to investigate and find the killer, the signs increasingly seem to point to one suspect above all – Othman Latlabi. It doesn’t take much time for Detective Alwaar to uncover Othman’s web of lies and deceit. But it’s here the novel starts to turn more towards those wider issues about the fledgling Moroccan democracy….. will Alwaar try to find out whether or not he is the killer or will Alwaar’s old habits die hard and just focus on getting evidence and extracting confessions that confirm he is the killer?

To our eyes, brought up on a diet liberally sprinkled with whodunnits full of doubts about the investigation and investigators, built to some extent on the much-recognised fallibility of both our judiciary and criminal investigation systems this novel might initially appear to be very simple and straightforward whodunit. But the excellent translators notes on this novel help the reader see this book in a very different context. When this was first published in Arabic before being subsequently translated into English, this was very much a daring and groundbreaking novel of its time. And it’s daring lay not in its plot structure, or twists or the answers to the questions it poses about whether or not Detective Alwaar is right or wrong in his suspicion that Othman Latlabi is a killer, motivated by greed and a desire for woman of his own age. It’s the fact that this novel dared to ask the questions at all which made it groundbreaking for it first emerged in a Morocco only just emerging from ‘the Years of Lead’ when the 20 odd years of King Hassan II’s rule were awash with state violence, intimidation and repression. To write and publish a novel like The Final Bet during that period would have been tantamount to signing their own death warrant for a writer like Hamdouchi. 

That latent violence and repression is never far from the surface of the novel and it’s cleverly and subtly brought out in the characters of Detective Alwaar and his police colleague Inspector Boukrishra. These are two men who are the first to admit that the thing they strugggle with most in the new Morocco and its new approach to criminal investigation is that you actually have to investigate at all – these are men who’ve built their careers on beating confessions out of suspects – and when that doesn’t work they beat the evidence they need out of witnesses until it fits with the suspect they intend to convict.

But for all the crudity of approach in Alwaar and Boykrisha, Abdelilah Hamdouchi never make the mistake of making them one-dimensional. Alwaar is a man who can and does self-reflect – while it doesn’t turn him completely into a detective who starts from a presumption of innocence until he can prove otherwise he’s a least a detective who knows where his instincts and habits take him – he might be a man of bias and a man not afraid to use that bias – but even as he does it he’s acutely aware of it.

The plot and characters are strong enough to stand up on their own as a straightforward whodunnit until the intervention of Alwaar’s lawyer. At that point the story starts to lose a little bit of its structure and believability as a whodunnit and instead becomes a little less than subtle in making its political points. But given how new and how crucial the introduction of legal representation BEFORE a suspect appears in court on trial actually was to the growth of freedom of speech and the right to a defence under the law in Morocco, it’s a political motive that the reader can and should both understand and forgive. It doesn’t stop it being a literary sledgehammer being taken to crack a nut – but when that ‘nut’ is human rights then I for one don’t mind how big a sledgehammer an author like Abdelilah Hamdouchi might use!

I really liked The Final Bet. At only x pages you know before you start it’s not going to be a novel of deep and complex characterisation or a novel with a hugely intricate and interwoven collection of plot and sub-plots. But it is well written, well-paced and with a reasonably tight enough plot to make it an enjoyable read. The Final Bet might not be one of the best detective/crime novels I’ve ever read, but it’s underlying themes about liberal democracy and freedom of speech, and the context into which it emerged in Morocco, certainly make it one of most important crime novels I’ve ever read.

Book Rating - 7

The Final Bet by Abdelilah Hamdouchi was published by Hoopoe Fiction in 2016. I bought my copy with my own hard earned cash on the back of a review of it I read at Winston’s Dad blog. As I get most of my translated fiction recommendations from his blog I’d urge you to visit him and read both his review of The Final Bet and any reviews of other translated fiction mentioned on his sight that takes your fancy. 

You can find out a little more about Abdelilah Hamdouchi and read extracts from another three of his novels, at Words Without Borders. The publisher Hoopoe Books also has a short biography and synopsis on several of Hamdouchi’s books on their site, where you can also explore other novelists work from across The Middle East. And if that whets your appetite, you can find out more from the publishers, who are pretty active on Twitter @HoopoeFiction.

The Final Bet was first translated into English in 2008. The translator for the edition I read was Jonathan Smolin who did that first version so I assume this is the original English translation. The novel read really well to me and those translator notes were invaluable in giving me a much deeper understanding of this book and it’s messages in the context of 20th Century Moroccan history.

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