Jakob Arjouni's Kismet is another of this surprising writer's wonderfully odd crime novels. Amid murders and explosions, for example, it contains this timeless immigrant's refrain:
"…every year I have to go and beg to be allowed to stay another year. …I sit in that waiting room with all the other poor fools who've cleaned their shoes and put on clean shirts…. when your turn finally comes you're just a crumpled, stinking Thing and you'd almost agree with Herr Muller or Herr Meier if he looked at you as if to say, what's a pathetic creature like you doing in our lovely country?"
This could be 19th-century Vienna. It is instead today's Germany, vividly and bleakly depicted in the latest novel in Arjouni's investigator Kayankaya series.
Arjouni, like Kemal Kayankaya, his not-so-hardboiled protagonist, is a German of Turkish origin. And like Kayankaya, he is also a mischievous subversive who delights in confounding easy assumptions -- xenophobic or liberal -- about his or any other immigrant's ethnicity. "…the Islamic scholar had picked me from the yellow pages on account of my name," Kayankaya observes of one German client, "and of course when we first met she had explained to me at length what the Turks were like, myself included. Industrious, proud…secret rulers of Asia -- in short, I was a whole great nation in myself."
Arjouni's tone throughout the Kayankaya series is breezily cynical and his plots straightforward, although usually spiked with a subtle twist. In Kismet, the novel in which Arjouni first introduces the detective, and which is newly available to American readers in this paperback edition from Melville House, Kayankaya is hired to scare off gangsters who are extorting protection money from a Brazilian restaurant owner in Frankfurt. When the plan goes bloodily wrong, Kayankaya finds himself confronting a sinister organization, "The Army of Reason," that emerged out of the Balkan wars and that threatens to disrupt Frankfurt's diverse organized crime scene. "You had the feeling that a kind of criminal Olympic Games was going on in the Frankfurt station district," Kayankaya observes of the city's competing international gangs. He must also find a Bosnian woman who has apparently been kidnapped by the criminal newcomers.
With its snappy dialogue and rumpled heroes, Arjouni's crime fiction owes an obvious debt to American noir but it is equally reminiscent of many Eastern European satirical novels. The plot of Kismet may recall any number of gangster romps, but the society so caustically depicted here is as recognizable as that conjured up, for instance, by Jaroslav Hasek in The Good Soldier Schweik. Entering a bar in the dreary town of Offenbach, for example, the laconic Kayankaya observes of the drinkers, "Most of them were around fifty and looked as if they had always been, as if they'd always been hanging around in bars and only went out now and then to get cheap suits and haircuts." Two killers who are stalking Kayankaya walk with "...those long, confident everybody-listen strides that Berliners have…"
The violence too, although occasionally cartoonish, is described with cinematic clarity but often shaded with rueful afterthoughts. "If two men die and everything's still the same as before, or worse, then something's wrong." Kayankaya reflects after the carnage of the novel's opening scene, "Or I could have put it to myself more simply: I wished I hadn't shot anyone." Neither he, nor his creator Arjouni, lets this hero off the hook.