The crime novels of Jacob Arjouni
Jakob Arjouni's Turkish-German private eye Kemal Kayankaya walks the mean streets of Frankfurt with a flair worthy of Bogart.
By Katherine A. Powers, writing for The Barnes & Noble ReviewSkip to next paragraph
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Sherlock Holmes may be the most famous detective in the world, but more fictional sleuths have been modeled after Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe than any other. His heirs possess a congeries of traits and outlook best described by Chandler himself in a letter he wrote shortly before he died. Marlowe, Chandler wrote, "is a lonely man, a poor man, a dangerous man, and yet a sympathetic man…. He will always have a fairly shabby office, a lonely house, a number of affairs, but no permanent connection…. He will always be wakened at some inconvenient hour by some inconvenient person to do some inconvenient job…. No one will ever beat him, because by his nature he is unbeatable. No one will ever make him rich, because he is destined to be poor…. I see him always in a lonely street, in lonely rooms, puzzled but never quite defeated." To this description must be added a penchant for wisecracks when confronted by goons or high-handed big bugs; a view of the world refracted by simile and reported in the first person; and three essential bad habits: drinking, smoking, and getting whacked over the head at regular intervals.
Kemal Kayanka is just such a man. A German-Turkish private investigator living in Frankfurt, he is the hero of four novels by Jakob Arjouni, first published in Germany between 1985 and 2001, all now available from Melville House in English translations. An outsider in spades, Kayankaya cannot speak Turkish, but is routinely and boorishly treated as a despicable immigrant and regularly expected to explain himself: why he speaks good German, why he's not "carrying a garbage can under his arm and leading a string of ten unwashed brats." In fact, he was adopted by a German couple, his mother having died at his birth, his father killed when the future gumshoe was an infant.
Happy Birthday, Turk!, the first in the series, introduces Kayankaya. It's his birthday and begins with a crushing hangover – itself one of a series. There is nothing edible in his apartment, naturally, and nothing in his mailbox but "an invitation to purchase pork chops, bathing suits, and toothpaste, and a flier from a mortician." Kayankaya's crapulous, sparely etched world is a Frankfurt version of Marlowe's in seedy L.A. Arriving in his office in an especially depressing part of the city, Kayankaya describes the start of the day's work: "I pulled up the blind, opened the window, and kept an eye out for wealthy, good-looking female clients." Instead he gets a poor little Turkish widow whose husband was stabbed to death outside a brothel a couple of days ago, a crime in which the police have shown little interest.