Why did it have to be a novella? QTL readers familiar with my other reviews will know that I tend to harp on authors for padding their stories out to novel-length. It has historically been one of my largest pain points in reading horror, as I personally feel that the genre tends to be at its best when it remains lean, punchy, and shocking. Cue the gasps when I reveal that, at least for The Haunting of Tram Car 015, I wish it was a novel. In fact, I wish this was book one of a fifteen book series reminiscent of the old Spenser detective books. I devoured this story, and as much as I tend to appreciate and advocate for affecting stand-alones, this world cries out for more exploration than it’s received both here and in P. Djeli Clark’s short story “A Dead Djinn In Cairo.”
The Haunting of Tram Car 015, set in Cairo in the early 1910s, follows a pair of supernatural investigators looking into what they’re initially told is a haunted tram car. Through a series of trial and error mishaps, bargaining, intimidation, and a small bit of cross-dressing, the two investigators eventually work out the nuts and bolts of the case. The novella doesn’t tread any fresh ground for the detective genre through its story, and anyone looking for surprises here is going to be disappointed. As someone who grew up reading the Spenser books and loves a good mystery, it was very solid, if by the numbers, detective fare.
Our main characters, Agents Hamed and Onsi, once again follow a format we’ve seen before in the genre. Agent Hamed is a cynical but effective investigator who’s been on the job for quite some time and is a little stuck in his ways. While anyone who’s read detective stories or mysteries before will have seen this dynamic play out, I thought that Clark managed to imbue the characters with just enough that was different that they still seemed fresh. Agent Onsi is fresh out of the academy and has an air of Carrot about him, for those familiar with the Discworld books. Enthusiastic, intelligent, and extremely devoted to each individual letter of the law, much of the comic relief comes from Onsi’s inability to stop talking or read the room. His reading out the specific statues violated by the possession of the tram to the spirit haunting it was hilarious to me, and Hamed’s inner monologue as it was happening was a great moment of levity.
While the characters and story may at least feel familiar to readers, what truly sets The Haunting of Tram Car 015 apart is its setting. The Cairo described within the text is a bustling and diverse megacity due to the re-release of magic into the world about 50 years prior by the Egyptians. This changed the course of history as we’re familiar with it and elevated Egypt to world power status immediately, freeing them of their colonial shackles and putting them at the very forefront of the world stage. During the events of the novella the shockwaves of this are still being felt throughout the world. The integration of Djinni and other magic beings is discussed at length, as well as domestic and foreign views of how the remainder of the world is handling the fact that Egypt is now (once again) a major player in world politics. I especially enjoyed the conflict Hamed experiences in his traditionalism in regard to his view of women and how to treat them in public in contrast to his progressivism when it comes to the spiritual denizens of Cairo. In addition to all of the larger worldwide political exploration, the story takes place at the same time as the country is about to vote on women’s suffrage. The added bustle of the city increases the stakes during several moments of the plot, and I felt that Clark did a good job exploring how the events of the prior 50 years have changed the culture in Egypt to the point that the women’s suffrage movement is both possible and extremely popular. I wasn’t expecting this going in, but I felt like it added a great deal to the sense that this story was taking place in a real world inhabited by real people, regardless of how magical and otherworldly it seems on its face.
With a title like The Haunting of Tram Car 015, I expected some elements of horror. Unfortunately, I was a little disappointed in this particular case. While the story is “spooky” in that it revolves around a haunting and there are things adjacent to ghosts in it, I never really felt scared by any of the descriptions or events. There was always a distinct sense of threat and consequence if things went wrong, and the final conclusion of the story was very much edge-of-your-seat stuff, but I was left wishing I had felt more scared by things, rather than unsettled. This certainly may not be the case for everyone, though depending on what it is that you’re scared of there are some moments that could give people the heebie-jeebies, but it just never really happened for me.
Even with the lower level of spooks than I personally prefer, The Haunting of Tram Car 015 left me wanting so much more. Normally I would say that to mean it didn’t reach the heights it could have and I was left disappointed on that account. In this instance, I wanted about 300 more pages of worldbuilding and exploring this version of Cairo. I adored the world Clark built and felt something akin to whimsy as he described the workings and machinations that keep such a unique city running. I will be overjoyed if we ever get to see more of Agents Hamed and Onsi, but I’m glad to have spent even a brief period following them on a romp through a city I’ll never forget.
Rating: The Haunting of Tram Car 015 – 8.5/10