Trying – and failing – to keep his head down and to stay out of trouble, ex-con Zaq Khan agrees to help his best friend, Jags, recover a family heirloom, currently in the possession of a wealthy businessman. But when Zaq’s brother is viciously assaulted, Zaq is left wondering whether someone from his own past is out to get revenge. Wanting answers and retribution, Zaq and Jags set out to track down those responsible. Meanwhile, their dealings with the businessman take a turn for the worse and Zaq and Jags find themselves suspected of murder. It’ll take both brains and brawn to get themselves out of trouble and, no matter what happens, the results will likely be deadly. The only question is, whether it will prove deadly for them, or for someone else…
It seems like an age ago that I read and reviewed the first of Amer Anwar’s series Brothers In Blood, (originally published as Western Fringes) but it has so been worth the wait for Stone Cold Trouble. We’re back on the mean streets of Southall and stone cold trouble is indeed never far from the surface…
What I love most about Anwar’s writing is the earthiness of tone, and the vitality of description that he consistently produces. Both books to date are an assault on the senses, as he so thoroughly immerses us in the lively and vibrant, if rough and ready atmosphere of Zaq and Jag’s stomping grounds, and the short visceral bursts of violence that ensue, as they find themselves caught up in some pretty testing situations- not all of their making. As Anwar depicts the Asian community, the little nuances and oddities that form the backdrop to his characters’ lives, family connections, and the strength of friendships forged that transcend religious differences, he paints a vivid, affectionate and wonderfully edgy picture for the reader. The book is peppered with references to Asian traditions, some with a delightful self-mocking feel to them, colourful colloquialisms, and all bound up with an innate rhythm of speech so the character’s voices echo around your head. From the legacy of Partition to contemporary retribution and revenge, the overlapping of storylines and the innate connections that link them all are carefully revealed, and drawn together beautifully. All this is conveyed to the reader with dry humour and pathos, compounded with the themes of loyalty and retribution, leading to a bloody and shocking denouement.
The main protagonist, Zaq Khan is a mercurial, and consequently, unpredictable character, who Anwar portrays in an extremely empathetic way. Zaq is an intelligent, wisecracking and resourceful young man, tainted by his time in prison, but absolutely ready to defend those he is closest to, even if it does run the risk of conflict with the police. As he and his best friend Jags become embroiled in the hunt for a family heirloom, gambled away by Jags’ feckless uncle Lucky, and try to track down the perpetrators of a senseless attack on Zaq’s brother, Tariq. There is some quick thinking to be done, favours to be asked and repaid, tricky negotiations, a damsel in distress to rescue, and some serious revenge to be had, all underscored by this slowly simmering sense of Zaq being a kind of human volcano. As much as his good humour and alacrity precedes him, there is an undercurrent of violence in his character, that he seems to try and keep dampened down and controlled. Until someone needs a good kicking of course. Although he has forged strong friendships, his one with Jags is a constant delight in the book with the joshing and camaraderie, also with his feisty and hugely loyal housemates, faces from the local community, and a quite frankly scary acquaintance from his time in prison, we get the overriding impression that Zaq is a good guy to have on your side when trouble comes down.
Zaq embodies the themes of intense loyalty and revenge that loom large in the book, there is an undercurrent of uncertainty and emotional frailty to his character, so astutely drawn by the author when we observe Zaq with his parents, and his embarking on a tentative romantic relationship. His residual guilt from what he has put his parents through, and his estrangement from them and his brother is poignantly handled, So much is conveyed by Anwar in the stilting interactions, and the gaps in the conversations between Zaq and his parents, where a knowing look or a fleeting physical touch, conveys his need to build bridges with his family and win back their trust. It’s beautifully done, adding a very human touch to Zaq’s character that just emphasises the very real feel of his character, and his need to make personal connections, despite the sense of him holding himself back, unwilling to disappoint people again.
There is much to be admired about Stone Cold Trouble from the astute and visual characterisation, with a potent and lively mix of the good, the bad, the ugly, and the quite frankly stupid. The book is nicely tempered by an acknowledgement and depiction of, of an extremely distressing period of Asian history, and its reverberations into the modern day. The portrayal of Zaq’s community, and Zaq himself, with his ties of friendship and family, and the little bursts of humour that arise from this are a sheer delight, in what is overall an extremely well-plotted and meticulously planned thriller, that gathers a head of steam and ingenuity that’ll fair blow your socks off.
I loved this book.
Really loved it.
(I bought this copy of Stone Cold Trouble, published by Dialogue Books)