HAPPY BIRTHDAY, TURK! (1986) by Jakob Arjouni

Arjouni-Happy-Birthday-Turk-NEP This fast-paced private eye novel stands out in a very crowded field thanks to its originality of tone, theme and setting. The place is Frankfurt and the time is August 1983, well before Germany’s reunification. The protagonist is Kemal Kayankaya and the action, spread across three hectic days, begins on his 26th birthday (hence the title). Kemal is a private investigator of Turkish extraction, which is why he gets picked for a job that nobody else wants …

I offer the following review as part of the Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott over at her Pattinase blog. You should head over immediately to see the terrific reviews being offered there today.

“You a cop?”
“No, I’m a Turk.”

Kemal was born to Turkish parents but was brought up in Germany – his mother died in childbirth and his father also died shortly after moving to Frankfurt. He was adopted by locals and brought up outside of the Turkish community, barely even able to understand the language anymore. Having dropped out of university, he got his PI’s licence but, as is the norm in the genre, he is not exactly getting much money out of his business. He drinks and smokes too much and is a tough character, often stirring things up to get a result and usually getting into fights as a result. On 11 August 1983, his birthday, he gets a new client in the shape of Ilter Hamul, the recent widow of Ahmed Hamul, a lowly sanitation worker. Arjouni-Happy-Birthday-Turk-melvilleHe was stabbed in the back and found literally on the wrong side of the tracks, near the railroad station in the red light district. As the police aren’t making much of an effort, she has come to Kemal to get some answers. Her choice is not exactly random but he was the only PI in the phone book that she though she could turn as , “… to her delight she had discovered a Turkish name among all the Muller’s.” When he goes to Hamul’s house he get a somewhat frosty reception – it seems the rest of the family was a bit less keen on his hiring, especially her surly brother. None the less he takes the case and heads off to the local brothels to see why he was there at the time and if there was a connection with the stabbing.

“The atmosphere was about as relaxed as the final minutes of a world soccer championship”

This was the debut novel of German author Jakob Arjouni (1964-2013), who died in January after losing his battle against pancreatic cancer. Born Jakob Michelsen, he was barely out of his teens when he completed this novel and to a degree it shows. The story and the characters are in fact largely built on the archetypes of the hardboiled genre. Without being overly diagrammatic, here are some of the PI staples you will find here:

  • our PI hero has a local connection at the local police station
  • the PI drinks and smokes constantly
  • our hero displays remarkable powers of recovery after every beating
  • a prostitute takes a shine to the PI and gives him a freebie
  • the investigating cop is corrupt and immediately hostile to the PI
  • The PI gets warned off several time, each one progressively escalating in violence
  • the first person narration is peppered with the kind of quips and humorous similes as handed down by the troika of Hammett, Chandler and Macdonald
  • the suspects are rounded up at the end for a showdown

“Hey, Aladdin – where did you leave your lamp?”

Arjouni-Happy-Birthday-Turk-9781842437810On the other hand, our protagonist has to put up with a particularly inimical milieu, encountering casual and direct racism virtually at every turn – most of the Germans he meets are fat, sweaty, boorish and spoiled. The only really positive character out of all of them is Loff, the retired cop who helps him because he has too little to do and misses his old life on the Force. The gag once made that Chandler solved most plot problems in his early stories by having a couple of gunmen knock on the door is also respected here, though this does get an ingenious variation when the men turn up in overalls and gas masks and let off tear gas pellets in the PI’s office after locking him in, which I think must count as something of a first!

“I started the Mercedes and drove off. I was doing sixty through the first red light.”

I greatly look forward to reading the other books in the series as there is a strong sense of a talent here finding his feet (he would go on to win several prizes as a novelist and a playwright), choosing a convenient form to look at the complex state of German society and the changing role of immigrants within it, with all its inequalities and uncertainties. The five books in the Kemal Kayankaya series are:

  1. Happy Birthday, Türke / Happy Birthday, Turk! (1986)
  2. Mehr Bier / More Beer (1987)
  3. Ein Mann, ein Mord / One Man, One Murder (1991)
  4. Kismet / Kismet (2001)
  5. Bruder Kemal / Brother Kemal (forthcoming from No Exit Press)

In 1992 the book was turned into a film by writer-director Doris Dörrie. It is also available as an unabridged audio book – listen to an extract from the opening chapter here:

Mark Lawson wrote an obituary for Jakob Arjouni in The Guardian, which you can read here while Mrs P offered her own tribute, with many great links to her reviews and other materials about the Arjouni books, here. Lawson (and Mrs P) discussed Jakob Arjouni and PI Kemal Kayankaya on Radio 4’s Foreign Bodies programme here though sadly these are not currently available on iPlayer.

For information about the book and the author from his UK publisher, visit the No Exit Press website at: www.noexit.co.uk

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in Germany, Jakob Arjouni, Private Eye, Scene of the crime. Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to HAPPY BIRTHDAY, TURK! (1986) by Jakob Arjouni

  1. TracyK says:

    Sergio, I loved the list of the PI staples. Very funny. But seriously, this book and this author sound very good and I like mysteries set in this period and place. And it fits perfectly into my goal to read more translated mysteries. Will definitely be looking for some of the books. Thanks for introducing me to this author. The name sounds vaguely familiar but he certainly was not on my radar.

    • Thanks very much TracyK – this is clearly a beginner’s book, but he built a very strong reputation as a novelist and playwright before his early death. I hope to review more of his books soon. Would love to know what you make of his efforts.

  2. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – Tracy’s right; the ‘PI checklist’ is inspired! I love it. And your review is, as ever, excellent. Even if this was a debut novel (and therefore ‘rough around the edges’) I like the idea of exploring the immigrant community in Germany and the the issues of ‘culture class’ among other things. It sounds like a good mystery too. Thanks.

  3. Mrs P. says:

    Thanks very much for the great review and the mention, Sergio, and I’m really glad you enjoyed the novel.

    For me, this one will always stand out in a German crime-fiction context because it was so ground-breaking in the mid-1980s. The idea of a witty, capabable, confident Turkish-German private detective, when Turks were still expected to hold menial jobs in society (e.g. kebab-seller or rubbish collector), was completely new, and forced German readers to look at their society from a very different perspective – namely that of someone facing racism on a daily basis. It’ll always be one of my favourites – and the film is worth a watch too (although a few elements of the original have been changed).

  4. Thank you for introducing us to Jakob Arjouni, Sergio. I’m sure I’ve never run across his books here in the States, but they might be available over in Canada (just over the border). I’ll be looking for Jakob Arjouni’s books.

  5. Sergio, this is an unusual choice and a really good one. It is equally unusual to see a Turkish detective investigating crime in Germany, which suggests a strong Turkish immigrant community in that country. I enjoyed reading both yours and Mrs. P’s take on the Turkish community in Germany at the time this novel was written. It was a complete revelation for me. Thanks for a very fine review.

    • Thanks very much Prashant, you are very kind. I always think that it’s great that the detective genre can be so flexible as to help us find our way into new and varied scenarios with such comparative ease.

  6. neer says:

    Thanks Sergio for introducing another fine author. I seem to have heard his name somewhere but can’t recall exactly where or in which context. I’ll be looking for his books.

  7. piero says:

    This writer I don’t know.
    If you like to read another my long article, the day before yesterday was published my article about “Jumping Jenny” by Anthony Berkeley and about differences between English version and italian translation of novel, on BLOG MONDADORI, to link:



  8. piero says:

    Ah, Marcos y Marcos!
    I have got by this publishing house several novels by Charles Willeford. I repete: I didn’t konw this writer: I will see to buy this novel, if it’s possible to find it at library.

  9. piero says:

    If you liked the English version of Berkeley’s novel, I could give you the original text or I could tell you where you could find the original novel.

  10. Thanks for the interesting review. All the books in the Kayankaya series are really enjoyable, although the quality of the translations is a bit mixed. My own review in case you are interested: http://www.mytwostotinki.com/?p=810

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