Mr. Hammett and Mr. Chandler famously took crime out of the drawing room and gave it to the kind of people, at the bottom of the ladder, who really knew what to do with it. At its best, the genre works as a powerful form of social commentary. Crime knows no social, cultural or ethnic boundaries, and it thrives in places where people struggle to make ends meet.
An Act Of Kindness, the second in Barbara Nadel’s series about the East End Arnold detective agency, comes out in paperback next week. It’s set in multicultural East London — a place where different faiths and communities and generations live side-by-side — on the eve of the 2012 Olympics. Despite the lovely stadium and shiny shiny new shopping centre full of expensive trinkets, this part of London is still an area of extreme poverty, and a place where predatory gangsters prey on a population struggling to keep its head above water.
Here’s the blurb:
London’s East End has always been a social and racial melting pot and never more so than today. PI Lee Arnold and his assistant Mumtaz Hakim don’t mind – it keeps them on their toes.
The days are getting darker and they have a new case on their hands. A young Asian couple moves into a dilapidated house in Upton Park. The woman, Nasreen, spends much of her time working alone on the house, her husband Abdullah preoccupied with his job.
John Sawyer is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. Since his discharge, he has been volatile and is now homeless. An unlikely friendship develops between Nasreen and John, one that her husband would frown upon.
When John’s body is discovered, Nasreen’s suspicions light upon Abdullah. Did he know they were friends? Reluctant to go to the police, Nasreen reaches out to the Arnold Detective Agency. Mumtaz Hakim begins to dig into Abdullah’s past and into the house itself which, she finds, holds its own grim secrets.
There’s a lot to enjoy in An Act Of Kindness. It doesn’t skimp on the crime. Its central mystery – the discovery of a skeleton with the body of a murder-victim in a Jewish cemetery – has its origins long in the past. There are pitbull East End villains and salt-of-the-earth coppers and TOWIE wannabes and pub derelicts and characters eaten away by catastrophic secrets. Nadel packs a lot of plot into the novel, and gives all her characters, white and asian, plenty to do.
There’s a strong soapy element to the proceedings. When we meet our heroine Mumtaz Hakim, the headscarfed detective, she’s still very much suffering the consequences of the events of the first book in the series, and dangling plot threads entice us towards the third.
Mumtaz is an empathetic and feisty heroine. Her concern for her client Nasreen is the emotional cornerstone of the book, and she really comes into her own in a long, harrowing set-piece towards the end of the book. Lee Arnold, her down-at-heel boss, takes more of a supporting — and touchingly supportive — role, so that much of the investigation into the murders is carried out by another engaging heroine, DI Vi Collins, whose attempts to bring down the Rogers brothers — a right pair of nasty so-and-so’s — brings her into conflict with her ambiguous boss.
Nadel doesn’t blanch from the cruel and violent aspects of the story, with its graphic depictions of the sex trade and the way organized crime preys on the poor and needy in every community. Not everyone gets a happy ending here, but it’s a novel imbued with a vivid sense of place. In a lot of crime novels, the sense of location is nondescript and fuzzy, but in this book the hustle and bustle of Green Street and the surrounding area permeates every page.
East London has long been an area in which immigrant communities have taken root in the city, and you get a real sense of an area where different faiths and generations and communities live alongside each other, and of an underlying lawlessness caused by the predatory criminal gangs who move among them all. But the often blunt scenes of violence and persecution in the book are balanced by numerous reminders that, left to their own devices, people are very respectful and caring of each other. It’s not called An Act Of Kindness for nothing.
If the book ultimately doesn’t quite pull together all its different plot-threads together at the end, it’s another reminder that there’s more, much more, to the crime genre than kiss kiss bang bang. Certainly, for this West Ham supporter, it’s enough to warm the old cockles.
Many thanks to Quercus for the review copy.
Barbara Nadel gave us the Intel on Hakim and Arnold, and on her writing process, on Friday. So just scroll down a bit to take a look at that.