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. He 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?”
On 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:
- Happy Birthday, Türke / Happy Birthday, Turk! (1986)
- Mehr Bier / More Beer (1987)
- Ein Mann, ein Mord / One Man, One Murder (1991)
- Kismet / Kismet (2001)
- 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