Book review: 'Kismet' by Jakob Arjouni

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By Richard Lipez
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, January 18, 2011; 9:28 PM

You don't often run across a hard-boiled literary PI who's potbellied, recovers from a beating by pigging out on baked beans and complains to a client's girlfriend that her clothes smell bad when what he's actually reacting to is the cologne she carefully picked out for the day. Kemal Kayankaya is all that and sometimes worse, and yet this ethnic-Turk-in-Frankfurt moral scourge is as winning a noirish gumshoe as has swooped onto the mystery scene in some time. I can say "swooped" because Kayankaya is nimble in spite of being "old and fat." In one delightfully preposterous scene, he chases a couple of thugs James Bond-style down a long hotel corridor in their own rampaging Mercedes.

In the first of Jakob Arjouni's four Kayankaya books to be published in the United States - "Happy Birthday, Turk!" will arrive next month - this down-on-his-luck detective is scraping by with just one client, a cheerfully pompous Islamic scholar who likes to explain Turkish culture to a man with it in his own DNA. The professor has hired him to find her missing dog. Then, suddenly, a Brazilian restaurant owner pal of Kayankaya's is hit by protection racketeers, who rip off his thumb. The Army of Reason is a vicious gang with Croatian nationalist ties that's bent on replacing the current mild-mannered sin-district crime bosses from Germany, Austria, Italy, Albania, Romania, Turkey et al. - "a kind of criminal Olympic Games." It's as if the Balkans' chief export was sadism.

Some of Arjouni's Chandleresque flourishes don't quite come off, as in, "My face was dripping like lettuce that's just been washed." But much of the writing is droll and flavorsome, thanks in part to an especially talented translator, Anthea Bell. The brothel where Kayankaya meets his favorite whore is "as civilised and homely as a village bakery in a French film." The beer in an Irish pub is dreadful, "but you still drink it to help you put up with the music."

Sometimes in the background - and occasionally in the foreground - of this hectic, violent tale is the angry sense of alienation felt by Germany's immigrants. Kayankaya, himself a German citizen, is still known in his neighborhood as that "wog detective." His Brazilian buddy is regularly humiliated by immigration officials. Until, that is, Kayankaya blackmails the immigration director, a married man with boyfriends who are younger than they ought to be. As with much in Arjouni, this is rough justice solidly in the noir tradition.

Lipez writes the Don Strachey PI novels under the name Richard Stevenson.

KISMET

By Jakob Arjouni.

Translated from the German by Anthea Bell.

Melville. 255 pp. Paperback, $15


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