Karim Miské’s debut novel Arab Jazz won France’s top crime fiction award in 2012, the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière. But since then, of course, his delicate portrait of the simmering tensions between faiths in the multicultural 19th arrondissement of Paris has gained a shocking resonance:
Here’s the blurb:
Kosher sushi, kebabs, a second hand bookshop and a bar: the 19th arrondissement in Paris is a cosmopolitan neighbourhood where multicultural citizens live, love and worship alongside one another. This peace is shattered when Ahmed Taroudant’s melancholy daydreams are interrupted by the blood dripping from his upstairs neighbour’s brutally mutilated corpse.
The violent murder of Laura Vignole, and the pork joint placed next to her, set imaginations ablaze across the neighborhood, and Ahmed finds himself the prime suspect. However detectives Rachel Kupferstein and Jean Hamelot are not short of leads. What is the connection between a disbanded hip-hop group and the fiery extremist preachers that jostle in the streets for attention? And what is the mysterious new pill that is taking the district by storm?
In this his debut novel, Karim Miské demonstrates a masterful control of setting, as he moves seamlessly between the sensual streets of Paris and the synagogues of New York to reveal the truth behind a horrifying crime.
Miské’s freewheeling novel is both a police procedural and a portrait of disaffection among a broiling community. It’s not just a crime novel – indeed, to my eyes, the crime element is the most dissatisfying element of it. Miské is clearly a crime fiction buff — the title is a riff on James Ellroy’s White Jazz, and his reclusive quasi-protagonist Ahmed lives in an apartment surrounded by piles of crime novels — but as a crime novel it threatens to fracture somewhat.
The author has little interest in withholding information, and the POVs of the two investigating police officers, and Ahmed, are sidelined increasingly by a succession of excellent minor characters who grab their moment in the spotlight.
Arab Jazz works more successfully for me as a slyly amusing literary novel. Miské’s narrative pivots on the murder of Ahmed’s upstairs neighbour but then it gradually pulls its focus — Miské is a documentary film-maker — to become a panorama of the whole community, taking in different faiths and professions and communities.
More and more voices enter the narrative and you get a kind of Dickensian sense of the streets, all these different communities rubbing up against each other. There’s street-level disaffection and anger among a generation of young men that bubbles beneath surface of what is, in many respects, a sensitive and good-natured novel.
The new drug that floods the streets of Paris works as a kind of metaphor for that fracturing and disenfranchisement. And not just among fundamentalist muslims, but also the Jewish community and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The drug, naturally enough called Godzwill, comes from a long way away, but it has a devastating impact. There’s a tremendous sense of a city, and a whole generation, in flux, and that’s not helped by the corruption at the heart of the establishment.
And in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks – the magazine is even mentioned in the story – Arab Jazz positively pulses with layers of meaning.
There’s also those magpie touches that French authors so excel at. Pop culture references litter the text — movies and music, and especially fiction. At the back of the book you’ll find a playlist of songs featured in the story, including that most gallic of artists, Serge Gainsbourg.
As a crime novel Arab Jazz is perhaps too freeform for me — the narrative centre doesn’t hold — although it becomes something of more like a classic roman policier towards the end as the bodycount rises. But Miské’s story is always surprising and empathetic — and he’s undoubtedly a writer of considerable talent.
There’s no doubt that Arab Jazz drills down deep into the uncertain and dangerous zeitgeist of our times.
Many thanks to Maclehose Press for the review copy of Arab Jazz. I’m thrilled to say that Karim Miské will be giving us the intel on the novel and his writing – look out for that next week!