At the end of Yasmina Khadra's first Superintendent Llob novel Morituri (2003), we had left the Inspector contemplating the depths that some business people would go to in Algeria to make their personal empires grow. From bribery to faked terrorist campaigns against intellectuals and entertainers (faked only in the sense that the fundamentalist Islamic were not behind them – the killings were real enough), it didn't seem as if there was anything they wouldn't consider.
As readers we had been introduced to a world that is completely beyond what most of us can comprehend. A country that is at war with itself, a war that escalates on a daily basis with bombings and killings by any number of either terror groups or factions of the elites involved in their endless power struggles.
Caught horribly in the middle, with almost no power to touch anyone above them on the social ladder even if caught with blood on their hands, the police fight back with whatever weapons they have at their disposal. It's not police or detective work like we are used to, with the deductive reasoning of little grey cells, or the careful compilation of evidence to be used in court.
Sometimes it's a matter of following the trail of corpses and seeing whose doorstep it leads you to. Other times it's a matter of pushing harder than you are being pushed and hoping the other guy snaps before you do. Llob manages to get results using both methods, but little pieces of him are dying every day.
But sometimes when it is a matter of either little pieces or being killed, your choices are limited. Llob, however, does his best and still manages to look at himself in the mirror. He ruffles as many feathers as he possibly can, to keep their owners as honest as possible, but when most of those consider themselves, for good reason, untouchable enough to have police bodily removed from their premises as a nuisance, you know at best you're fighting a holding action.
In Double Blank, Khadra's (Yasmina Khadra is the pen name of Mohammed Moulessehoul, a former high-ranking Algerian army officer turned novelist) second Superintendent Llob mystery, it's Llob's reputation for being a good cop writer that lands him in the presence of one of the elites of Algerian life. What Ben Ouda, former diplomat, and one-time hero to a younger Llob, wants with him now — after a requested meeting — remains just as unclear and nebulous as before.
But somebody must have understood what it was all about, and what was so important about the computer diskette that Ben Ouda claimed would have all the information Llob needed to write a truly historical novel. For only hours after Llob's meeting with Ouda, not only has he been separated from the computer diskette but his head seems to have ended up in a bidet without the rest of his body.
Once more Llob has to walk the path of least resistance among captains of industry, petty thieves, and potential fundamentalist terrorists. The irony of how both the fundamentalists and the wealthy both claim all they do is for the good of Algeria is not lost on Llob. Nor is it lost that in both instances neither seems to mind if there has to be some violence and death along the way. One justifies it as the will of God, and the other calls it the forces of the marketplace or a necessary adjustment.
Even though there is an obvious connection between the murder and a known terrorist cell, Llob begins to suspect some even further behind-the-scenes manipulation. Each time he closes in on one of the terrorists it's only to find him dead before he gets there.
When the last of them forces one of Llob's men to kill him — to prevent him from triggering his booby-trapped body and wiping out a neighbourhood in the city — it looks as if the case will be without a satisfying resolution. Somebody else had wanted to be rid of the assassins even more urgently than the police, and unless they found out who or what, the real reason for Ben Ouda's death would always remain a mystery.
What was on that mysterious diskette that made so many lives expendable? That is the question that plagues Llob as he continues to try to find the missing pieces that will complete the puzzle. Both the wealthy in their enclaves, and the fundamentalists with their black and white view of the world, scare and disgust him in equal parts, but the answer lies somewhere in one of those worlds
In Double Blank we learn a little more about the past of our hero, and begin to understand how he came to become a policeman. He started his life under colonial rule only to see it replaced by a dictator. Hope was born when the dictator was toppled, but it was short-lived as the bottom feeders quickly rose to the surface to begin nibblng at the bones of the picked-over country to get the last pieces of flesh for themselves.
They might have called it revitalizing the economy, but Llob — looking around at how they live compared to everyone else — has some pretty strong doubts about their altruism and heroism. The hope that was born with the fall of the dictator has been chewed away by the vultures.
Once more Kahadra paints a picture of a city on the verge of combustion and a country on the edge of self-immolation. The people of Algeria may not be able to survive the efforts of those intent on saving either their souls or their economy, and the best they can do is try and hold on and weather the storm.
Double Blank is not only a great mystery story, it is also a vivid portrait of a country struggling to stay away from the madness that has affected so many other nations in their part of the world. Read Yasmina Khadra's books for the story, but read them as well for the glimpses they offer of life in a world we know so little about.