Culprit Unknown

Naguib Mahfouz

Artwork by Mirza Jaafar

There was nothing noticeably unusual in the apartment, nothing that might help the detective with his investigation. It was an unassuming place, just two rooms and an entryway. The most surprising thing about it, in fact, was how ordinary it looked, given that it had just been the scene of a heinous crime. Even the bed was only as ruffled as you might expect after a good night’s sleep. But the man lying there wasn’t asleep. He was dead.

From the rope marks around his neck, his bulging eyes, and the dried blood around his nose and mouth, it was clear that the man had been strangled. Beyond these clues, however, there were no signs of a struggle, not in the bed, the room, or anywhere else in the apartment. Everything was normal, usual, ordinary. The detective stood there perplexed, scanning every corner with his experienced eyes, turning up nothing. This had definitely been a crime, and every crime has a criminal. And you can’t catch a criminal without any clues. Here were the windows, all locked shut, so the killer must have come in through the door and left the same way. It was also clear that the victim had been strangled with a rope; how had the killer gotten it around his neck? Maybe he did it while the man was sleeping—that would explain the absence of any signs of struggle. Or maybe he surprised him from behind, throttled him, then laid him down on the bed, covered him with the sheet, straightened up the apartment, and took off without a trace. What a guy! What nerve! He works with deliberation, calm, and certainty, just like in the stories. He keeps control of himself, the victim, the crime, and the crime scene all at once, then goes on his merry way. What a killer!

The detective laid out the steps of the investigation in his mind—identify the motive, interview the doorman and the elderly maid, etc.—and came up with various conjectures, trying to resist his own subjective reactions as much as possible. He then went back to thinking about the strange criminal who had snuck into the apartment, killed a living soul, then left without a trace, like a pleasant breeze or a passing ray of sunshine. The detective looked through the cupboard, the desk, and the victim’s clothing. He found a wallet with ten pounds in it, a watch, and a gold ring. That ruled out theft as the motive. But what had been the motive?

The detective summoned the doorman, an elderly Nubian man who had worked in the small building on al-Barrad street in al-ʿAbbasiyya for dozens of years. He told the detective that the victim was a retired teacher named Hasan Wahbi, in his seventies or older, who had lived alone since the death of his wife ten years earlier. Ustaz Hasan had a daughter, married, who lived in Asyut, and a son who worked as a doctor in Port Said. He was originally from Damietta, and his maid was named Umm Amina. She came to the apartment every day around ten o’clock in the morning and left around five.

“What about you?” the detective asked the doorman. “Did you ever do anything for him around the house?”

“Never, not even once a year,” the old man said quickly and assuredly. “I only ever saw him coming and going through the front door.”

“Tell me about yesterday.”

“I saw him leave the house at eight in the morning.”

“Did he ask you to clean the apartment?”

“I told you, not even once a year,” the old man said with some nervousness. “Not even once in his whole life. Umm Amina comes at ten, cooks his food, cleans the apartment, and does the laundry... ”

“Does she leave the windows open? Any of them?”

“I don’t know.”

“Could anyone get in through the windows?”

“No way. His apartment is on the third floor, as you can see, and there are buildings on three sides of ours, with the fourth side opening onto al-Barrad street itself.”

“OK, continue what you were saying about yesterday.”

“He left the house at eight, then came back at nine. That’s what he usually does, every day for more than ten years. After that, he stays in his apartment until the next morning.”

“Does anyone ever visit him?”

“I don’t remember ever seeing anyone, other than his son or his daughter.”

“When was the last time they visited?”

“Last Eid.”

“Does the milkman or the paperboy ever come?”

“He usually brings the papers back after his morning outing. As for zabadi, Umm Amina gets it delivered for him in the afternoon.”

“Did she have it delivered yesterday?”

“Yes, I saw the milk boy going up to the apartment, and I saw him leave.”

“When did Umm Amina leave yesterday?”

“Around sunset.”

“When did she come today?”

“Around ten. She rang the bell, but he didn’t open the door.”

“Did he go on his usual morning outing today?”


“You’re sure?”

“I didn’t see him leave,” the doorman said. “And I was in my usual seat by the door until Umm Amina got here and went up to his apartment. She came back down after fifteen minutes to let me know that he wasn’t responding. I went up with her, rang the bell, and knocked on the door. When he didn’t respond, we went to the police station.”

This doorman couldn’t even strangle a chicken, the detective thought, nor could Umm Amina, though they might have helped someone else enter and leave the apartment. But why would anyone want to kill a respected teacher like Hasan Wahbi? Had there been a secret theft? Had the criminal left the wallet untouched to mislead the police? And what about the key to the apartment they had found in one of the desk drawers? Had that been another ruse?

Umm Amina told the detective she had worked in the teacher’s house for a quarter of a century, fifteen years while the man’s wife was alive, and ten years since her death. She said that she was also a widow and a mother to six daughters, all of whom were married to workers and professionals. She gave the detective their names and addresses.

“He was in perfect health yesterday,” she said. “He read the papers and recited a portion of the Qur’an out loud. When I left the apartment, he was listening to the radio.”

“What do you know about his family?” the detective asked.

“They’re from Damietta, but they were rarely in touch. None of them ever visited him—except his son and daughter, for the holidays.”

“Did he have any enemies that you know of?”


“Does anyone ever visit him at home?”

“Never. Sometimes he’d sit at the café on Friday mornings with former colleagues or students.”

The detective asked himself if it was possible for a crime to be committed without any motive or clues. He finished the necessary procedures and had his assistants search the doorman’s residence, Umm Amina’s house, and each of her six daughters’ homes. He then summoned the victim’s few friends for questioning, but none of them offered any leads. The man’s murder was a puzzle that boggled the mind.

Meanwhile, news of the case spread, first in the street, then in the papers. Everyone in al-ʿAbbasiyya heard about it, and most of them felt bad for the victim. Hasan Wahbi’s son—the doctor—confirmed that his father hadn’t owned anything valuable at all, and that his bank account only had a hundred pounds in it at the time of his death, saved in case of emergency. He also swore that his father hadn’t had any enemies, and that he may have been killed by criminals seeking some wealth they imagined he’d hidden away in his home. The police conducted thorough interviews with the doorman and Umm Amina, but these didn’t lead anywhere either. They were both released.

Clouds of confusion enveloped the detective. He felt defeated in a way he never had before. He had a long history of fighting crime both in the countryside and in many regional capitals, and he was, in short, a well-respected officer. This was the first case that had completely flummoxed him, offering not a single ray of hope. He sent his officers in search of suspects all over al-ʿAbbasiyya, from the desert to the outskirts of the Wayili district all the way to ʿArab Muhammadi Park, but none of them turned up any leads. The forensic pathologist, meanwhile, found that the cause of death had indeed been strangulation, and he searched all of the man’s belongings hoping to find a fingerprint, a strand of hair, or any other of the traces that criminals usually leave behind. But his efforts were in vain. Everyone seemed to be staring into a silent void.

Detective Muhsin ʿAbd al-Bari felt ashamed and disturbed by this defeat. He lived with his wife in Yashbak Street, not far from the police station. When his wife noticed his distress, she said to him sweetly:

“Don’t get angry for no reason. It’s not right.”

He didn’t know what to say.

He tried to distract himself by reading. He loved reading Sufi poetry, especially the work of Saʿdi, Ibn al-Farid, and Ibn ʿArabi. This was a rare hobby among police detectives, and he tended to hide his pastime even from his best friends.

Because it was so obscure and puzzling, and because the victim had been a teacher to many young people in al-ʿAbbasiyya, the murder continued to be the talk of the neighborhood. But after about a week or so, the news sank into a terrifying sea of forgetting. Even Muhsin ʿAbd al-Bari wrote it off as a “closed case, culprit unknown.” “Unknown!” he said to himself, swallowing his bitter defeat. “This really is the great Unknown!”

A month later, the detective was called to an old palace on al-ʿAbbasiyya street to investigate a similar case. It was as if the first crime had happened all over again, and Muhsin couldn’t believe his eyes. The victim was a former major general in the Egyptian army, and he lived with his family: a wife in her sixties, a widowed sister also in her sixties, and his youngest son, who was a university student in his twenties. A doorman, a gardener, a driver, a cook, and two servants also lived in the palace.

The general had been found in his bed that morning as though asleep, just like every day, except it was later than he usually got up, so his wife went in to check on him. As it turned out, he wasn’t asleep, but strangled, with marks from the rope carved into his neck, terrifying, bulging eyes, and blood caked like dried glue around his mouth and nose. The bedroom was in perfect order, even the bed, and no sound had woken the other family members sleeping on the same floor during the night. The detective was facing down the same murderous puzzle that had defeated him only a month earlier in Hasan Wahbi’s house. He was staring straight into the unknown, with its silence, strangeness, mystery, cruelty, absurdity, and bitter mockery.

“Was anything stolen?” he asked the wife.


“Did he have any enemies?”


“And the servants, did he have a good relationship with them?”


“Do you suspect anyone?”


The detective carried out his investigation without much hope. He searched the palace with the utmost thoroughness, interviewing the family and the servants too. He listened anxiously, fearing the unknown. He wondered if a secret conspiracy was being plotted in the shadows, one that aimed not only to do away with a number of victims, but also to ruin his own reputation and everything he held dear. He felt like he was suffocating under the weight of this mysterious puzzle. If he failed again, he decided, he wouldn’t be fit to live, and life wouldn’t be fit for living.

Because this second victim had been a man of such status, a flood of senior detectives came to supervise the investigation themselves.

“This was certainly a crime,” one of them said in astonishment, “but it’s as if it was committed without a criminal.”

“There must be a criminal,” another said. “Maybe he’s closer than we think.”

“How did he do it?”

“He wrapped a thin rope around the general’s neck, then held it tight until the man stopped breathing. But how did he get to the scene of the crime? And how did he get away without leaving any clues?”

“And what was the motive?”

“The motives for killing are as numerous as the motives for living!”

“Is it possible to kill someone for no reason?”

“If the killer were crazy, he might kill for no reason, or for a reason we might never understand. . .”

“And what’s the connection between the teacher and the general?”

“They were both mortal!”

The news was splashed all over the front pages of the newspapers, and the headlines had a frightening effect on public opinion, especially among the residents of al-ʿAbbasiyya. The general had been well-known since the time of the elections. He had run for office many times and had once been elected as a member of parliament. Muhsin deployed all of his informants to investigate, issuing the strictest orders. He threw himself into his work with a feverish desire to succeed and went home every night with his strength and his spirit exhausted. He insisted on concealing his worries from his wife, who was pregnant and suffering from morning sickness. His greatest fear was being transferred out of the al-Wayili police department in disgrace, to be replaced by someone else, just as he had replaced others in the countryside, back when he was rising through the ranks. He tried to calm himself by reading poetry, but his mind was fixed on the crime that had become the symbol of his defeat.

Who was this terrifying killer? He wasn’t a thief or a madman, and he wasn’t out for revenge. A madman can kill, but he doesn’t plan out his crime with such inimitable cunning. Detective Muhsin was facing down an overpowering mystery, and there seemed to be no deliverance in sight. How could he handle the responsibility of protecting people’s mortal souls from this danger?

After a while, al-ʿAbbasiyya grew tired of the subject, and as their interest waned, their souls were somewhat quieted. Detective Muhsin’s anxiety also turned into a calm sadness, which he hid deep within his soul.

And then it happened again.

The crime occurred forty days after the major general’s murder. The scene was a middle-class home in al-Ganayin, and the victim was a young woman in her thirties, the wife of a small-time contractor and mother of three. As usual, everything was found in its proper, usual place, except for the rope marks burned into her neck, the blood caked around her mouth and nose, and the eyes bulging out of her head. There were no other clues. Detective Muhsin carried out his routine with a calm but despairing spirit, feeling as if his torture would never end, as if he had been appointed to catch a mysterious, merciless force. He interviewed the victim’s mother, who lived with her.

“I came in this morning to check on her,” the mother said, “and that’s when I found her . . . ” She grew silent, choking back tears. When the wave of sobbing had passed, she went on. “The poor girl had been sick with typhoid for ten years.”

“Sick?!” Muhsin cried out in surprise.

“Yes,” her mother replied, “and it was a serious case. But . . . but she didn’t die of typhoid!”

“Did you hear anything during the night?”

“No. The children were asleep in this room, and I was asleep on the couch near her room, to hear her if she called. I’m always the last one in the house to go to sleep and the first to wake up. I went into the room and found her like this, poor little thing . . . ”

The husband came back from Alexandria around noon in a state that prevented him from answering the detective’s questions, and anyway he didn’t have anything to say that could help the investigation. He had been in Alexandria for work, and spent the day of the crime in Café Tugariyya with colleagues whose names he provided. He then spent the night in the Qabari neighborhood, where he received the fateful telegram. He woke up wailing.

“Detective, I can’t take this! She’s not the first one either! Before this, the teacher and the general were both killed. What are the police doing? There’s a criminal behind every crime, and you should have caught him by now!”

Muhsin couldn’t handle these insults. “Don’t you get it?!” he exploded. “We’re not magicians!”

He quickly regretted what he had said. “I’m the real victim of all these crimes!” he thought to himself as he made his way back to the station. He wished he could have shared his feelings of inadequacy with someone who might understand. This criminal is like air, he thought, but even air leaves traces behind when it blows through. Maybe he’s more like hot weather, but even heat leaves its mark on people, places, and things. How many more files would he have to write off as “case closed, culprit unknown”?

Meanwhile, fear gripped al-ʿAbbasiyya, and the newspapers fanned the flames of terror. People sitting in cafés spoke of nothing but the murders and the horrifying, unknown man who had committed them. The air was charged with danger. All traces of trust in the police disappeared, and suspicion was concentrated on outcasts, deviants, and madmen, as is the fashion these days. Still, investigations revealed that no patients had escaped from the mental hospital, and although many anonymous letters of accusation also arrived at the station, the police found no one dangerous in the homes they investigated—mainly just elderly shut-ins. Some people reported a young man who was known to the residents of al-Sarayat street as a deviant. The police arrested him and brought him in for questioning, but it quickly became clear that on the night of the general’s murder he had been detained in al-Azbakiyya for harassing a woman in the street. He was released, and all of the police’s efforts amounted to nothing. “The only suspect in this case is me!” Muhsin said in despair.

And so he faced down the people of al-ʿAbbasiyya, the newspapers, and his own shortcomings, as groundless rumors flew every which way. Some said that the suspect was known to the police, but that they were concealing his identity because he had connections to important people in the government. Others said that there was, in reality, no suspect and no crime, but rather an unknown, dangerous disease which the Ministry of Health was working day and night to cure. Confusion and anxiety spread.

One day, about a month after the woman’s murder, the officer on duty at the Wayili District office reported a body in the alley by the police station. No one had ever seen anything like it. Detective Muhsin ʿAbd al-Bari hurried to the place where the body had been found, even though it was so close by he could have examined it from his office window if he’d wanted to. He found the body of a man—almost naked, clearly a homeless person—sprawled against the wall of the police station. He almost cried out in distress when he noticed the traces of a noose around the man’s neck. 'Oh God . . . Even this beggar?' He searched the man’s galabiya in the hopes of finding a clue. To identify the man, the police brought in the neighborhood sheikh, who verified that the man was indeed a beggar, well-known to the residents of Little Wayiliyya.

A hopeless investigation ran its course yet again, mainly to cover up Detective ʿAbd al-Bari’s shameful defeat. Those who lived close to the scene of the crime were questioned, but what new information did he expect to uncover? And why weren’t the police themselves questioned too, since they were technically the closest to the scene of the crime? Informants moved through suspect neighborhoods, but it was as if they were searching for nothingness, or for something imaginary, like a ghost. To ease the exasperation in everyone’s minds, dozens of suspects and deviants were brought in to the station, and eventually there were none left anywhere on the streets of al-ʿAbbasiyya. The number of police officers in the streets increased dramatically, doubling overnight, and the Ministry of the Interior offered a thousand-pound reward to anyone who could lead the police to the mysterious killer. The newspapers eagerly ran the story on their front pages. Events piled up until they had swelled into a terrifying crisis in the minds of al-ʿAbbasiyya’s residents. They were gripped by fear, tortured by delusions, and their conversations became little more than wild, incomprehensible ramblings. Those who could left the neighborhood, and if not for the housing crisis and other prevailing circumstances, the well-to-do area would have been completely emptied of its residents. But no one suffered as much as Detective Muhsin ʿAbd al-Bari or his unlucky, pregnant wife.

“You’re not to blame,” she said to comfort and encourage him. “No one would have ever imagined anything like this happening.”

“There’s no use staying in my post now.”

“But you didn’t do anything wrong!” she said with concern.

“To waste so much effort is as bad as doing something wrong, as long as people aren’t protected and the damage isn’t stopped.”

“You’ll win in the end, though, just like you always do.”

“I doubt that,” he replied. “This case has shattered what we always do into a million pieces.”

He didn’t sleep that night. He stayed awake thinking, and he was seized by a desire to flee into the world of his Sufi poetry, where there was quiet and eternal truth, where all lights dissolve into the higher unity of being, where there was comfort for the troubles, failures, and futility of life. Isn’t it amazing that both a worshipper of Truth and a ferocious criminal could belong to the same life? We die because we waste our life in petty concerns. There is no life, no deliverance for us, unless we face the truth and nothing else.

Barely two weeks later, there was another incident, equally as strange as those that had come before. A body fell from the last car of the Number 22 tram in the middle of the night. The conductor stopped the tram and went toward the source of the sound, and the driver followed along. They found an Effendi lying on the ground. At first they thought he was drunk or high, or that he had tripped and fallen. Then the driver pointed his flashlight at the man and let out a sudden cry.

“Look!” he exclaimed, pointing at the man’s neck.

The conductor looked and saw the notorious rope marks. They quickly called for help, and a number of police officers and informants emerged out of the area’s dark corners. They arrested two people who happened to be passing by the scene of the accident and took them into the station for questioning. The accident caused a terrible shock, and Muhsin had to make yet another violent, despairing effort in vain. He released one of the two suspects once it became clear that the man was an army officer in civilian clothes, and he investigated three others without turning up any leads. He tasted the bitterness of defeat and disappointment for the fifth time, and he began to imagine that the criminal had actually designed these hellish games to target him as much as the victims. The criminal reminded him of the men of mystery he had read about in novels, or the creatures who fall to earth from other planets in the movies.

“You should go to your father’s house in Giza,” he said to his wife, “far away from all this torment and fear.”

“But I don’t want to leave you in such a state,” she protested.

“I only wish I could find a good reason to blame myself or any of my assistants,” he sighed.

The case was extensively discussed in the newspapers, in lengthy articles penned by psychologists and men of religion. Fright afflicted al-ʿAbbasiyya, and the entire area emptied out every night at sunset, with no one in the cafés or streets. Everyone seemed to be waiting their turn with death.

The crisis reached its climax when a young girl was found strangled in an elementary school bathroom. A frightening series of events followed. People were confused and numb. They no longer cared about the boring details of the investigation, the search, or the opinions and analyses scholars continued to offer in the newspapers. All they could think about was the nature of this danger which advanced indiscriminately and took people by surprise, this danger that didn’t distinguish between old and young, rich and poor, male and female, healthy and sick, or between a house, a tram, and the street. Was it a crazy man? An epidemic? A secret weapon? A fairy tale? Al-ʿAbbasiyya was sad, exhausted, and nearly deserted. Doors and windows were locked everywhere, and the topic of death was on everyone’s lips.

Muhsin ʿAbd al-Bari was roaming the neighborhood like a madman, supervising his officers and informants, searching faces and places, proceeding in utter desperation, and conversing at length with his despair and his defeat. He would have offered his own neck to the killer if it meant others would be spared the fate of that hellish noose.

Muhsin visited the hospital where his wife had just given birth. He sat beside her bed a while, looking at her and the newborn with a languid smile on his lips. It was the first time he had smiled in months. He caressed his wife’s brow gently before leaving.

He went back to the world in which he hoped no one would see him, and once there he fell prey to something like vertigo. A life that could be cut short by an unknown noose had come to feel like nothing, like something cheap and expendable. But life was truly something, without a doubt, and it was something precious. Love, poetry, and a newborn baby. Hope whose beauty knew no bounds. To be present in life . . . just to be present in life. Was there indeed a wrong to be righted? And if so, when would it be righted? He was as dizzy as someone waking suddenly from a deep sleep.

The police commissioner was informed of the decision to transfer Detective Muhsin ʿAbd al-Bari and replace him with another officer. He was offended and upset, as he held Detective Muhsin in the highest esteem. He went to the man’s office and found him with his head laid on his desk, as though asleep. He went closer.

“Muhsin?” he said quietly.

The commissioner called his name a few times, but Muhsin didn’t respond. The commissioner kept trying, to no avail. He shook the detective gently to wake him up, and as he did so Muhsin’s head lolled in a strange way. At that point, the commissioner noticed a drop of blood on the blotter. He looked at his colleague in fear and saw the red rope marks around his neck.

The entire police station was shaken to its core. A series of urgent meetings were held, and many important decisions were made. The Chief of Police summoned all of his employees to a large briefing.

“We'll wage a merciless war until the criminal is arrested,” he said with strength and determination. “The terror in people's hearts has become as dangerous as the killer himself!”

“Yes sir!”

“Life must go on as usual! People should go back to feeling good about life!”

Hundreds of questioning eyes gazed at him.

“And not a word about any of this will be published in the newspapers,” he added.

The eyes were full of weariness.

“After all, as soon as the news disappears from the papers, it'll disappear from the world as well,” he said, looking out over a sea of faces. “No one will know anything about it, not even the residents of al-ʿAbbasiyya themselves.”

He struck the desk with his fist.

“After today, there is to be no talk of death. Life must go on as usual, and people must go back to feeling good about life. And we will never stop searching.”

translated from the Arabic by Emily Drumsta