Arab Jazz by Karim Miské (transl. by Sam Gordon): Razor-sharp observation in the 19th arrondissement

Cover image Regular visitors to this blog might be surprised to find me reading a crime novel let alone reviewing one but Karim Miské’s Arab Jazz seemed so prescient given the shocking events in Paris last month that it piqued my interest, as did Marina’s excellent review at findingtimetowrite. The title is, of course, a nod to James Ellroy’s White Jazz – even I can work that one out. So here it is: what may well be my first crime fiction review.

Set in the 19th arrondissement – home to the Charlie Hebdo assassins – with the odd foray to Brooklyn, it opens with the murder of Laura, an air stewardess with a passion for orchids looked after during her many absences by Ahmed who lives in the apartment below. Ahmed becomes aware of something awry when a few drops of blood fall on to his balcony, then he notices a foot at an odd angle. Using his keys, he enters Laura’s apartment to find a particularly grisly murder scene which looks like a ritual killing. Ahmed knows what to do – he’s a man who buys crime fiction by the kilo from the Armenian second-hand book dealer just around the corner. He makes sure any evidence of his presence is expunged, destroys his blood-spotted djellaba and reports the murder. Soon he’s being questioned by two police lieutenants – one an absent-minded Breton, the other a particularly attractive Jewish woman who reminds him of his first love. Neither of them thinks he did it but it’s their job to find out who did.

I may be a rookie crime reviewer but I’m well aware that too much plot is a no-no. Suffice to say the hunt for Laura’s murderer takes in a Muslim/Jewish rap band, an ultra-orthodox Jewish Rastafarian, Jehovah’s Witnesses, bent coppers, illicit sky-blue pills and the beginning of a love story. Miské takes a well-aimed pop at religious fundamentalism, wrapping up all three Abrahamic religions in the big fat metaphor of Godzwill, a drug that makes you feel positively divine. The Parisian police force also comes in for a severe bashing balanced by the two thoroughly likeable investigating detectives, in particular Rachel who is determined to see that justice is done. Clues are strewn along the way, clicking the scattered parts of the plot pleasurably into place. At times a little cartoon like in its depiction of the various villains, the novel has a nice vein of sly wit running through it. It seemed to me to stand up well as a crime novel but its forte is its sharp social observation, taking a scalpel to modern society and its many disparate elements. Sadly timely – there’s even a throwaway comment about Charlie Hebdo – this is Miské’s debut and it’s already won an English Pen award. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a few more accolades heading its way.

6 thoughts on “Arab Jazz by Karim Miské (transl. by Sam Gordon): Razor-sharp observation in the 19th arrondissement”

  1. Pleased to see you are extending your reach into a life of crime! As you say, it’s not the plot that had me reading this book, but its spot-on observations about the so-called multicultural society and religious fundamentalism, its timeliness, its wit and some of the characters (I really liked the bookseller as well). I didn’t spot the metaphor of the feel-good drug and equate it to the opium of religion, but now that you point it out, it seems obvious!

    1. Let’s hope it’s restricted to fiction not real life! Yes, I liked the bookseller, too, and the idea of buying books by the kilo was lovely.

  2. Now funny you should mention this as I have been detailed to buy it for my Fr friend when I am in Paris next month . I think by the sound of the review my H would love it too …he is really into crime fiction and always on look out for Fr writers . May have to buy 2 copies !

    1. It’s excellent, Helen. Very funny at times but chillingly prescient, too. I’m not a crime connoisseur, as you’ve probably noticed, but that side of it seemed to stand up well, too.

  3. The best crime fiction always has ‘sharp social observation’ at its heart. I read a lot in this genre but hadn’t come across this. It’s going on the library list straight away.

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