Karim Miské (karimmiske.com)
Translated by Sam Gordon (www.sglanguages.com)
MacLehose Press (maclehosepress.com)
And so it is in the Valetta of Paris, 75019, that he feels the first drop on his upturned face, his half-closed eyes gazing up at the sky. The second comes crashing down onto the gleaming sleeve of his djellaba, a present from his cousin Mohamed. Ahmed looks down and watches the scarlet stain spread across the white cotton. It’s not rain. A third tear strikes him on the end of his nose. He tastes it. It’s blood. His eyes slowly move upwards, as if they know the sight that awaits them. A motionless foot is handing two metres above him.
So it is that Ahmed Taroudant discovers that his upstairs neighbour has been murdered. As the only person with a spare key to Laura’s apartment – she was an air stewardess, and he watered her orchids when she was away from home – Ahmed is the obvious suspect. But this is the 19th arrondissement of Paris, a veritable melting pot where political and religious tensions run high, and Detectives Rachel Kupferstein and Jean Hamelot believe him to be innocent. As their investigation progresses, they discover that there is more to this violent crime than initially meets the eye, and that one or more religious factions might be involved in both the murder, and the appearance of a new drug on the streets of Paris.
Documentary-maker Karim Miské’s debut novel is part crime fiction, part sociological examination of the consequences of people of various races and faiths living in such close proximity. The murder of a young air stewardess allows Miské to construct a complex – and extremely clever – narrative that shows the divisions within this small neighbourhood, as well as on a global scale. These divisions are reflected, too, in the novel’s protagonists: Rachel Kupferstein, Ashkenazi Jew, and Jean Hamelot, Breton Communist who likes to quote Goebbels. Running his own investigation is Ahmed Taroudant, the dead girl’s downstairs neighbour, and a man for whom she had strong – if not necessarily reciprocated – feelings.
This trio of characters are a fascinating bunch, each in their own unique way, and Miské takes time to examine the relationships between the three, complex and often unexpected. Surprisingly, Ahmed plays a central role in the investigation, drawing on his many years of reading “stacks of English-language pulp thrillers: Connelly, Cornwell, Coben”, paperbacks of which line his apartment so that the usable space narrows with each passing month. The book’s title is a riff on James Ellroy’s White Jazz, one of the early novels of Ahmed and Rachel’s favourite author. Ahmed’s position – his residency in the area , and the fact that many of the area’s other residents consider him to be quite slow – provides him with a unique opportunity to ask questions where the police may not necessarily have much luck.
The list of suspects encompasses a who’s who of religious denominations: the members of the edgy rap group who no longer associate with each other: Salafists on one side, a Hasidic Jew on the other; the Jewish barber who plays both sides of the fence, as comfortable with the Islamists as he is with his own people; the local Imam who is hiding something; and the Jehovah’s Witnesses recently arrived from America hoping to open a route for their new drug, Godzwill. The mix leads to a lot of tension, and Miské captures it wonderfully on the page, imbuing in the reader a sense of dread as to how easily this tinderbox might ignite.
As well as the individuals, the author captures the essence of the 19th arrondissement, and of this small neighbourhood. A timely read, following the tragic events in Paris early in the year, the reader comes away with some understanding of just how finely balanced the different factions are, as they share this small area of Paris. All this with a distinctly noirish feel, a voice that puts Arab Jazz firmly in the crime fiction genre: the wheelings and dealings of the various characters, like the barber who feels like he has just stepped out of a Middle Eastern version ofThe Godfather or The Sopranos, and, most importantly, the violent death of the young woman that sets the scene as the novel opens. The mystery unfolds slowly as the novel progresses, told from multiple viewpoints, so that the reader must piece the different components together to get an understanding of what is going on. The “action” (and I use the word loosely) moves from Paris to New York and back, and the dead girl becomes the thread that ties everything together. As we start to understand the nature of what is going on, it becomes apparent that Karim Miské is a masterful plotter, and a firm believer in the concept of Chekhov’s gun. There are twists and turns here that ensure that no character is left untouched, no innocents in the 19th arrondissement, with the possible exception of Laura and Ahmed.
Arab Jazz, I have on good authority, is the first novel in a proposed trilogy. Based on the strength of this stunning debut novel, consider me signed up for the rest of the journey. Beautifully written – and translated, for that matter, by Sam Gordon – this is a wonderfully-plotted novel by a man who obviously has deep respect – if not love – for the genre, and for the authors and filmmakers who have practiced it before him. An exceptional debut from an exceptional talent, watch out for Karim Miské: his is a name you will be hearing a lot in the future.