Casablanca. Othman, a handsome young Moroccan man, returns home to discover his elderly French wife, Sofia, brutally murdered in their bedroom. Highly educated but unemployed, Othman had been in desperate straits before meeting Sofia, who pampered him with fancy cars, expensive clothes and access to her mansion in the most exclusive neighbourhood in Casablanca. But living with a woman more than forty years his senior was too much for Othman - before his wife's murder he sought relief in a steamy affair with an attractive young aerobics instructor, Naeema.
Remarked upon often as the first Arabic detective story translated, THE FINAL BET is a very slim volume that has a strong central message. The book really isn't particularly about Casablanca the place, or even the people. It's very much targeted straight at the way that the Moroccan legal system functioned at the time that it was written - and you can pick that thread up very clearly even without reading the afterword by the translator of the book - Jonathan Smolin.
Othman has often thought about killing his elderly wife. The marriage is complicated by the difference in the ages between them, and because Sofia holds the purse strings and she therefore holds the power. Othman is an educated man - he studied law - but for some reason he was unemployed and destitute when he met Sofia. She had been married and had a son, but when her first husband was killed, she received a very substantial insurance payout. There was one other younger husband before Othman as well, but Sofia cut him off when she discovered he was cheating on her. Othman feels even more trapped - he wants out of the marriage, he wants his mistress, but he doesn't want to lose the luxury that money gives him.
He returns home late one night from his regular dog walk (where he meets with his mistress), to find Sofia lying on their bed. Stabbed and dying. He claims she tried to speak to him, gestured to the knife. He pulled it from her stomach as she dies, so his fingerprints are on the knife. Needless to say, he's aware of what that will say to the police, and the police are pretty well convinced they've got their man. It is only when Othman finally engages a lawyer that somebody listens to Othman's pleas of innocence and looks further.
The point of THE FINAL BET seems to have been to illustrate the brutality of the legal system at the time - that circumstantial evidence is easy to accept, and that suspects are often too overwhelmed by their situation to affectively advocate on their own behalf. In fact, in the afterword, Smolin points out that at the time of writing this book, Moroccan law didn't require a suspect to have legal representation at the time of police interview. He further explains that during the period of the 1970s and 1980s there were grave human rights violations - a time known as the Years of Lead. Knowing the background makes the point of the novel considerably clearer, although, it works as a fictional writing in its own right.
THE FINAL BET is a very small book - 148 or so pages (including the afterword), and it is very reminiscent of early hard boiled police procedural novels (or at least that's what it triggered in my mind). There isn't a lot of sense of place, but then there is a significantly different focus within this book than the location. It's very much a story of illustration, social commentary and an attempt to cast light into some very dark places in the world being written about.