Whitefly is a short detective novel by Moroccan writer Abdelilah Hamdouchi. Hamdouchi writes crime fiction and has had success as a screen writer of police thrillers. This novel was first published in Arabic in 2000 and translated by Jonathan Smolin in 2016. It is a noir-ish story of bodies washed up on the shore in Tangier. Are the deaths related? And why does one of the bodies have gunshot wounds? Detective Khalid Ibrahim, aka Laafrit, must rely on his instincts and connections both in the police world and on the gritty streets of Tangier to find the gun and piece together what happened to the four men.
The novel opens with a protest on the streets of Tangier. Students and workers are angry about lack of jobs and poor wages, and Laafrit steps in to help calm down the situation. In the meantime, a body has been found washed up on the shore. We learn that Laafrit has already been on the case of 3 other bodies recently found there, but this time there is a twist. Underneath the smart clothing of this victim, several gunshot wounds are evident. Laafrit and his fellow police had assumed until this moment that the unidentified bodies were harraga, that is, people who had tried to immigrate to Spain from North Africa without papers. We learn that it is quite common for Moroccans and other North Africans to attempt to enter Spain without papers in order to find work and perhaps eventually get the appropriate paperwork to stay legally in the country. In Spain, harraga do farm work under atrocious conditions and for little pay. Spanish farmers rely on this labor and pay off local authorities to look they other way. We also learn that unscrupulous traffickers have been known to take the money of harraga, promising to deliver them to Spain, only to dump them in the ocean and let them drown. A crackdown in Tangier was supposed to have solved this problem, and when Laafrit checks with his contacts in the underworld, he finds that ships full of harraga no longer depart from Tangier but instead have moved on to other towns.
It would be easy to simply assume that these three unfortunate men were harraga brought in by tides from elsewhere, but the fourth body with bullet holes leads Laafrit to suspect that something much worse is going on. Laafrit’s boss is adamant that the gun must be found, the assumption being that the fourth man was murdered on land and dropped at sea. The presence of a gun is a matter of grave concern, and I think perhaps American audiences, so accustomed to guns in our lives, cannot appreciate how dire the possibility of a gun on the streets seems to people in other parts of the world. Laafrit makes contact with the seductive dancer Fifi, whose connections to traffickers and drug dealers in Tangier have aided him in the past. He lets her know that he is looking for a gun and for the man who used it to murder. Fifi’s information takes Laafrit outside Tangier on the trail of a gun, and while he is sleuthing, one of the bodies is identified. Soon, the identities of all four men are known and Laafrit needs to contact his old friend Luis, a fellow cop in Spain, to help with the investigation.
Once the victims’ identities are known, the four men’s relationship to each other is explained, and Laafrit is able to interview family members. He travels outside of Tangier once again, retracing the steps of Mohamed Bensallam, the man who was shot, and trying to figure out both who killed him and why. The answer to this question is far more complicated than Laafrit and the Tangier police could have anticipated, and while I found Hamdouchi’s plot development to be clever and reflective of political and economic concerns in Morocco, I do have some problems with the story overall. Throughout the story, Laafrit seems to find answers to all of his questions rather quickly. He also shares information about his investigation freely with civilians and at one point hands over a piece of evidence to someone he has only just met. I also feel that Hamdouchi could have developed his characters a little better. Laafrit seems to have an interesting background, as do his co-workers and his wife, but too much is revealed by simply explaining those relationships in a few sentences or paragraphs. As a result, the supporting cast and even Laafrit come off a bit flat. My biggest concern, however, is with the ending to the story, which is so abrupt, it almost feels like a cliffhanger. The crime is not fully resolved, and Laafrit comes off as somewhat inept and callous. I was wondering if perhaps this is part of a series, but it appears not.
If you are interested in detective/noire fiction as seen from a different cultural perspective, Whitefly might appeal to you. I did learn a bit about political and economic problems facing Morocco and I was drawn into the story, but its shortcomings left me a bit frustrated in the end.