The Haunting of Tramcar 015: The setting and humor charmed me

The Haunting of Tramcar 015 by P. Djèlí Clark science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Haunting of Tramcar 015 by P. Djèlí Clark science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Haunting of Tramcar 015 by P. Djèlí Clark

P. Djèlí Clark’s 2019 novella (140 pages in print) is a genial paranormal mystery tale set in a wonderfully evocative alternative Cairo at the beginning of the 20th century. The title pretty much sums up the plot. Tramcar 105 is indeed haunted, as is quickly established in humorous fashion by the two agents sent to investigate by the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities. Hamed Nasr is the veteran of the pairing, with a sharp investigative eye and an equally sharp lack of patience for having his time wasted. He’s experienced in the job enough to cause the occasional eye-roll or grumble about “rookies,” but not yet jaded or cynical. His partner, whom he’s been “saddled with,” is new-on-the-job Onsi Youssef, only four years younger but with a face that “looked as if it belonged on a boy,” and with a boyish enthusiasm (and love of candy) as well.

As is often the case in such pairings, there’s a good amount of humor to be mined in the differing attitudes and responses, and Clark gets right to it with that first encounter with the “unknown being,” as Onsi addresses it, before offering up a litany of potential violations, including Article 275 — “acts of terrifying and intimidation of citizens.” The humor is light and effective throughout, lending a consistent charm to the story, as does the relationship between the two agents.

Another plus is the setting. Apparently, The Haunting of Tramcar 015 is not the first of Clark’s works set in this fictional universe, but for those who haven’t read the earlier work, “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” (including me), the exposition comes in relatively smoothly and with a soft touch, as in this passage:

P. Djèlí Clark

P. Djèlí Clark

It had been some forty years since the wandering Soudanese genius — or madman, take your pick — had, through a mix of alchemy and machines, bored a hole into the Kaf. The opening of the doorway to the otherrealm of the djinn had sent magic pouring out, changing the world for ever… Those same djinn had built up Cairo to rival London or Paris.

Being a novella, there’s not a lot of room for worldbuilding, but Clark shows a deft hand at the economic detail that takes up little space but conveys a lot, whether it be the sweet candies sudjukh, “kabed for dessert,” the hibiscus and mint tea, “colonnades carved into bundles of papyrus,” an oud (musical instrument) and more, all these details accreting into a tapestry that does more than enough to create a rich sense of place and culture.

The plot is engaging enough, if relatively slight and a bit anti-climactic in its resolution. It’s wrapped, as well, into political/social discussion, which was for me, at times, a little too blunt, but I appreciated the weaving in of substantive issues. Beyond that, the prose is clear and precise, the pacing smooth, and the length of The Haunting of Tramcar 015 is pretty much where it needs to be for the story. Though, that said, I’m looking forward to spending more time in this world by checking out Clark’s earlier stories. Recommended.

Published in February 2019. P. Djèlí Clark returns to the historical fantasy universe of “A Dead Djinn in Cairo”, with the otherworldly adventure novella The Haunting of Tram Car 015. Cairo, 1912: The case started as a simple one for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities — handling a possessed tram car. Soon, however, Agent Hamed Nasr and his new partner Agent Onsi Youssef are exposed to a new side of Cairo stirring with suffragettes, secret societies, and sentient automatons in a race against time to protect the city from an encroaching danger that crosses the line between the magical and the mundane.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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One comment

  1. I just now read “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” (after following the link in this review) and really enjoyed the setting/characters. I think you’d like it, too!

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