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. It is November. 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.
Must admit to having tuned in late to this new crime venture by Barbara Nadel, known for the excellent Turkish Inspector Ikmen series, and having missed the first book A Private Business, featuring PI’s Lee Arnold and Mumtaz Hakim, will seek to make amends with a review of this, the second in the series.
Gravitating around the East End of London in the run-up to the Olympics, I think what struck me most about the book was how issue-based the story was, with a wide-reaching commentary on the social and cultural problems facing normal people scratching out a life in the metropolis. Nadel interweaves these issues, not only into the central murder plot, but also within the lives and back stories of all the main protagonists, notably in her Muslim PI Mumtaz Hakim, a single parent suffocating under the weight of debts left by her late husband, and with the mental scars left by the abuse that she and her step- daughter received at his hands. This story is replicated to some degree in her interaction with Nasreen, a wife not wholly trusting of her own husband, and who strikes up a tentative friendship with street dwelling ex-soldier John, who is later murdered. Nadel deftly illustrates the stresses of these women’s previous and current relationships with secretive and violent men, hemmed in by the constraints of their religious obligations in marriage. We also gain an insight into the abuse of other women, as Nadel highlights such issues as sex trafficking and the difficulties for women trying to raise their families under the constraints of slum landlords and moneylenders. These are debts that can sometimes only be repaid by the cruellest and most demeaning acts possible, and Nadel provides an effective counterpoint throughout against the backdrop of the hope and regeneration bound up in the staging of the Olympics- a renewal that provides little succour in reality for those that lived in its shadow.
Although for my taste I found the plot a little pedestrian, I did read this book at a pace, as the previously mentioned socio-cultural aspects of the book were more than enough to keep my interest, and I did like the little nuggets of interesting facts and observations that Nadel drip-fed throughout. I also took to the central characters of Lee Arnold, the ex-police officer and Mumtaz Hakim, and the respectful parameters of behaviour that defines their relationship both on a personal and professional level. I enjoyed the touches of humour on Arnold’s part especially in relation to Nadel’s portrayal of the nastier characters of the piece and Arnold’s interaction with them, and how her ‘baddies’ were truly despicable and seemingly untouchable from the forces of law and order, personified by feisty DI Vi Collins, who also enjoys a unique relationship with Arnold. Indeed, the natural wit and characterisation of the book along with the more thought-provoking addressing of social and cultural problems, more than made up for any weaknesses that I perceived personally in the plotting.
On the strength of this book, I will most certainly be seeking out A Private Business, to catch up on the beginnings of the partnership of Arnold and Hakim, and would certainly recommend An Act of Kindness for those who like their crime with a little more social conscience, uncovering the reality behind London’s shiny facade.
Born in the East End of London, Barbara Nadel trained as an actress before becoming a writer. Now writing full-time, she has previously worked as a public relations officer for the National Schizophrenia Fellowship’s Good Companion Service and as a mental health advocate for the mentally disordered in a psychiatric hospital. She has also worked with sexually abused teenagers and taught psychology in schools and colleges, and is currently the patron of a charity that cares for those in emotional and mental distress. She has been a regular visitor to Turkey for more than twenty-five years and is the author of the acclaimed Ikmen series of crime novels, set in Turkey. An Act of Kindness is the second in the series of Hakim and Arnold novels. Follow on Twitter: @BarbaraNadel
(With thanks to Midas PR/ Quercus for the ARC)