Arab Jazz was one of those books that fell through my letterbox unexpectedly, landing on the outlying edge of my reading interests. It’s the sort of book that I’d love to read, if only there weren’t five more in the queue that I’d love to read equally, or even a little more. These books cause me great angst. They fill my shelves, waiting for somebody to invent a machine that slows time so that I can read them all. It’s a wonderful privilege to receive books unasked for, in hope of a review, but it cuts me up that I can rarely fulfil my side of the bargain; even if I never made it in the first place.
Arab Jazz was probably destined to remain somewhere near the top of the never-quite-read pile, when along came this tweet from Matt Craig at Readerdad (a fine blog, that you should read, especially if you like crime thrillers and Stephen King)
I’d half forgotten I even had the book, and hadn’t related its subject matter to the Charlie Hebdo shootings. The link forged by Matt, I thought I’d give it a try.
The book vividly brings to life the melting pot of Paris and its 19e arrondissment. If you asked what Paris meant to me, I’d say something typically clichéd about the Tour Eiffel, the cobbled streets of Montmartre and the centre Pompidou. If pressed, I might grab desperately for a superannuated pop culture reference and say ‘Royale with Cheese’. I like Paris, love to visit it, but in reality I know very little about it. Arab Jazz brings the real city, the city where people live, to life. Paris crashed into our newstreams this year, but only with a sense of hyperreality. Miské’s novel is grounded in the real Paris.
Here we see Jewish residents brushing up against Muslims, alongside Christians and communists. There are policeman and shop-owners, teenage girls and manic depressives. Barbers and bar owners. Wannabe pop-stars rub against ardent lovers, whilst criminals of every hue lurk in the shadows. The whole of life is found between the covers of this book.
Arab Jazz opens with a murder. A violent violation of an air stewardess. The ritualistic cant of the murder scene suggests religious fanaticism. The body of Laura Vignole is discovered by Ahmed, a reclusive young man with North African heritage. Quick to realise he’s in the frame (our reclusive hero reads masses of paperback crime novels, he can spot a set up when he sees one), Ahmed flees to his room to await the inevitable arrival of the police.
Rachel Kupferstein and Jean Hamelot immediately see that Ahmed is not responsible for the murder, even if the victim did have an unrequited love for him. Kupferstein and Hamelot are fabulously drawn characters, with heritage that deviates from the norm. Together, and with help from Ahmed who is running a separate investigation alongside, they try to uncover exactly what has been going on.
Arab Jazz is both helped and hindered by the recent events in Paris. Firstly they give some novel some context. Most notably a couple of references to Charlie Hebdo which would have sailed right by me a couple of months ago. The simmering tensions in the city have been freshly examined by the media. They may have used a rough grade magnifying glass to do so but the worldwide analysis of real-life events in Paris have given the (non-French) reader a frame of reference.
Miské’s story is a subtle one. When compared with the sledgehammer blow of overwrought news reports, it feels mundane. It took me a while realise that although this is fiction, the picture painted is far closer to reality than the recent sensational reporting. The characters here are not merely French, Jewish and Muslim but Breton, Ashkenazi and Salafist. Nobody fits a broad one-word label; the labels that make headlines, that polarise communities. This is a novel grounded in subtle distinctions.
I don’t want to give away too much of the plot. In many ways it’s not important. The key to the novel its cast. All different, all human, all living alongside one another. It’s not a perfect novel. I wasn’t keen on some of the flashback scenes, they felt like shoe-horning information in solely for the reader’s benefit. The colourful streets brought to life motif, does give the novel a rambling, ramshackle feel. If you like your crime fiction lean, mean and tightly plotted you might be put off. For me though the vivid portrayal of the 19th and it’s inhabitants is what sets the novel apart from the field. Overall this is an excellent début.
In Arab Jazz the murder takes second stage to the people caught up by its aftermath. The novel gently suggests that in a world where we run screaming from the demons pedalled by the media, the truth is often a little more prosaic. No single section of society has cornered the market in villainy. This is a fine novel that asks you to look beyond the stories we’re fed, forcing us to think that little bit deeper. Which is exactly what good fiction is meant to do. Apparently Arab Jazz is the first in a forthcoming trilogy of novels. I look forward to reading what follows.
Many thanks to the team at MacLehose Press for sending me a copy of this book.
Matt Craig’s full review can be found here, and his excellent interview with Karim Miské, here.