Michael Malone and Bashir Saoudi

The Guillotine Choice – How I Met Bashir Saoudi

I was paying a visit to my local library just before closing time. Last person out of the library (that reads like I am such a saddo/ bookgeek) and as I walked back to my car I noticed that the small coffee shop a few doors down was still open. Not one for drinking (anything) on my own, something compelled me to pop in.

The proprietor was a small North African man who was taking a career break from the computer industry to bring some Berber cuisine to the Ayrshire people. The location of the shop was not the most suitable and he had decided this particular evening to stay open late in the off chance he might attract some trade.

I was his only customer that evening. We chatted amicably over a coffee but parted, effectively, still strangers.

A few weeks later, I received a phone call from the president of the local writers club. A man had contacted her looking for someone to write his father’s life story and she had immediately thought of me. I was in the middle of writing what was to be my debut novel, ‘Blood Tears’ and researching another book-length project that was eventually published as ‘Carnegie's Call’. So given the workload I had at that point, I politely declined.

The following week I was presenting a creative writing workshop at Ayr Writers’ Club. The club president pointed out a man at the back of the lecture hall as being the man who had contacted her looking for a writer. It was the owner of the coffee shop.

His name was Bashir and at the end of the talk, Bashir approached me and asked me if I would re-consider writing the story. His evident passion as he talked caught my interest and I agreed to chat to him the next day over a coffee when he would tell me the facts of his dad's story.

When we met, he explained that the story began in the 1920's when his home country, Algeria was under the rule of the French. His father, an innocent teenager at the time, was faced with a terrible choice. Give the identity of the killer to the French authorities or spend the rest of his life in what was reputed to be the worst prison on earth. The problem was that the murderer was his cousin and if convicted his sentence would be carried out on the guillotine - and he couldn't face himself if his words sent his cousin to a very public beheading. So rather than give up his cousin to the authorities his father kept quiet and was sentenced to 20 years hard labour - in the same prison, and at the same time - as the author of one of my all-time favourite books, ‘Papillon’.

To be honest, Bashir had me at Devil's Island, but I was struggling with the idea of finishing the other projects I had embarked on while attempting to write such an epic, so I asked him to give me some more time.

That night when I got home, I received a phone call from a friend who was helping me with research for ‘Blood Tears’. At this draft of the book's existence my detective, Ray McBain was psychic (the publishers hated this, so I binned that aspect of the book) and the friend who phoned me was an actual psychic. Now, usually, we conversed over email and she explained that, as was normally the case, she had been trying to email me - all day - but that she kept typing my name in the email address box as Martin not Michael. And the weird thing was that she couldn’t stop herself. So she gave up emailing and decided to phone instead. She said this was particularly odd because she didn't know anyone with the name of Martin. She added that in fact the only person she could think of with the name of Martin was the TV presenter, Martin Bashir and consequently his name had been bouncing around in her head all day.

Cue spooky music.

At this point I was working part-time as a bookseller with my local Waterstones, My normal hours were 11am till 3pm, but the day after I met Bashir I decided to go in early and indeed I was the first person on the shop floor.

A rule of the shop was that we were never to leave any books at the till-point at the end of the day but that morning a small, silver Penguin publication that was not part of the usual stock sat by the till like an invitation. I would have to tidy it away before the boss saw it.

I picked it up and turned it over. The title was ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ by Franz Fanon. That was a new one on me and I turned it over to read the blurb on the back to find out where in the shop it should go – to discover that the book was a classic text about - wait for it - Algeria’s struggle for independence from French colonial rule.

OK, universe I said to the ceiling, I'll do it.

As soon as I got home from work that day I called Bashir and committed to writing the book - and 10 years later on it was published as ‘The Guillotine Choice’.


Michael J Malone with Bashir Saoudi - The Guilltine Choice

"The story is compelling from the offset and grows in intensity with every passing chapter."

In 1920s French-controlled Algeria, Kaci is in the frame for the brutal murder of his French boss. Kaci is faced with a stark choice: name his cousin as the killer and win his freedom, or keep quiet and face 25 years’ hard labour in the infamous Devil’s Island penal colony.

Either way, one of them is destined for the world’s worst prison... a hell on earth that few men survive.

As a regular reader of crime-fiction, I have rarely considered what happens to those locked up by my favourite coppers. With ‘The Guillotine Choice’, I was given a glimpse into the world’s most notorious prison through the eyes of an innocent man.

The story is compelling from the offset and grows in intensity with every passing chapter. On a technical note, there is nothing to drive the pace other than Kaci’s well-being and survival, yet these two factors were more than enough to keep me turning pages until the bath water went cold. Again!

Kaci Mohand Saoudi is a wonderful character whose fears, humanity and integrity were inspirational and the way he was depicted owes much to the consummate skill of Malone and the fact that ‘The Guillotine Choice’ is actually based on a true story.

In Malone’s hands, Kaci’s story is a riveting account of one man’s determination to survive in the worst prison in the world. While reading this excellent tale I couldn’t help but find myself drawing comparisons with the plight of Nelson Mandela such was Kaci’s quiet dignity and internal fortitude.

Reviewed by: G.S.

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