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.

Happy Birthday, Turk!, by Jakob Arjouni, Melville House, 176 pp.

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.

Kayankaya's investigations take him, as they invariably do, through Frankfurt's mean streets, its low-down bars and shabby eateries where he runs afoul of bruisers and sinister operators at every turn. The encounters produce a fusillade of witty ripostes and an impressive tally of smashed noses, broken bones, and conk-outs. The violence is almost celebratory; only fictional characters can take this sort of handling. The plot, which is nicely spun – and which I leave for you to discover – hinges on the immigrant predicament: powerless outsiders drawn into illegal enterprises from which they can never escape.

The second novel, More Beer puts Kayankaya on the track of a supposed eco-terrorist and murderer who is on the lam. We sense that environmental concerns are not paramount when we meet the voluptuous, green-eyed widow of the murdered man entertaining a massive hunk of beefsteak called Henry in her richly appointed, gated home. This book, though exciting enough, is the least successful of the four, perhaps because it alone does not deal with the exploitation of people looking for refuge in Germany.

Kayankaya, deep into Alka Seltzer, is back in top form in One Man, One Murder. The client here is an upscale artist, a dandy who crosses Kayankaya's office carpet, "[c] autiously, as if worried his shoes might get moldy." After some dithering, he explains ("masticating his words as if they were a day-old bun") that his Thai girlfriend has been abducted. With her visa running out, the young woman had been lured by a forged-papers scam and whisked away to an unknown fate. The case leads Kayankaya into a maze of corruption and up against a number of bad eggs, including the manager of a brothel, whose head, our hero reports, "reminded me, to a regrettable degree, of a double helping of pork knuckles topped with a permed thatch of sauerkraut.")

Once again, I am not here to summarize plots, except to say that this one boasts thrilling and treacherous twists – as does the final volume, Kismet, which is set after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Anti-Turk sentiment has been somewhat diluted by the arrival on the scene of a new objects of loathing in the shape of "Ossies," East Germans who have come west hoping to make a living. Once again, Kayankaya finds himself investigating a case which leads to the discovery of a scheme for exploiting immigrants – East Germans, this time, and in an especially diabolical manner.

To a large degree, Arjouni employs ethnic prejudice much as Chandler did class snobbery, as a means of drawing caustically funny portraits of characters filled with oblivious self-regard. Kayankaya's Marlovian impertinence addresses Germany's xenophobic intolerance without the unlovely air of grievance, and even as the battered detective picks himself off another squalid floor and downs a 100-proof bracer to ease the throbbing handiwork of some gangster's hired muscle, he is indomitable. Though he feels pain and uncertainty, he suffers no dark nights of the soul. Kayankaya's adventures include none of the existential conundrums or nihilistic high jinks that make some European crime novels so tiresome. They are just marvelously entertaining.

Katherine A. Powers is a Monitor contributor.

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