We have a very interesting set of stories in The Cairo Diary by Maxim Chattam (Pan Publishers) and as I found myself reading it, I desperately wanted to be back in Cairo, feeling the sun beating down and walking those ancient streets where shadows can be so dark that anything can lurk in them.
The story is set in modern day France as well as 1928 Cairo. I found myself easily slipping into the storyline, intrigued by the main character Marion and wondering exactly what she had done to deserve being sent to the remote religious community of Mont St Michel in France for her own safety. The story slowly but surely unravels like a ribbon and equally cleverly folds back on itself to open new links and ideas.
Marion, whilst helping one of the brothers from the religious community catalogue parts of a library, stumbles across a handwritten diary by a young Englishman called Matheson who had been posted to Cairo in the late 1920's where he led an investigation into the murders of young Egyptian children. The murders are so brutal and shocking that no one involved in the case can help but feel something supernatural was involved.
Through Marion unfolding her own story and the mystery of Mont St Michel, we progress the story of the Cairo Diary. The two stories are well crafted and fit together quite well. The locations used in the book are beautifully described and I for one am planning to visit Mont St Michel - I am sure the image I have built in my head of it after reading the book is totally incorrect, but like in Kate Mosse's Labyrinth it is a case of luring the reader into examining, questioning and visiting.
I can wholeheartedly say that the settings used in the Cairo part of the story are as I remember them - the necropolis is a hugely scary place, it is easy to conjure up monsters lurking in the dark. Importantly it gives you that sense of being there in that hot sun with the sand and the cry calling the faithful to prayer or in Marion's case, sitting in the window of her cottage as the storms lash the Mont.
Admittedly there are a very few places where the conversations and descriptions feel stilted, but then I think it is because it has been translated from its native French into English and some parts don't flow quite as well as it should, but trust me when I say, even these very few problems are no hardship and they do not detract from the storytelling.
The storytelling is of a conversational sort - it is unpretentious and flows fast, making good use of chapters and paragraphs breaks, varying both in length and impact with naturally, a few cliffhangers.
The Cairo Diary is a gripping thriller mystery with two strong plots led by unusual characters who never seem to vie for the reader's attention as the story develops. It is a satisfying read and it is highly recommended for a read by the beach, whilst lazing about in the sun or, if the mood strikes you, huddled in a cottage somewhere with rain pounding on the windows and waves crashing on the shore in the distance. It is atmospheric enough to carry you away regardless of your place of reading.