Review: by Christopher G. Moore
Barbara Nadel has made her international reputation with her Istanbul set Inspector Ikmen Mysteries. What is outstanding about the Istanbul novels is her adroit weaving of cultural attitudes and values into the social and economic world of her characters and her considerable ability to breath life into Istanbul as a city. She makes Istanbul come to life.
It is a different challenge to make Muslim life inside a London come to life. An Act of Kindness rises to his challenge and creates a part of London most of us have never witnessed and have no first-hand knowledge.
In this new mystery series, the stories take place in the marginal neighborhood of East London where immigrants and local poor live. Both communities fall prey to organized criminals who circle like vultures over the vulnerable robbing them of their dignity, respect and security. An Act of Kindness has the same cultural preoccupations as the Inspector Ikmen Mysteries—to open the psychological and emotional arrange of a self-contained community with different traditions, beliefs and attitudes. In the novel, the Muslim worldview—especially the one of Muslim women—seek to find an uneasy co-existence with English values and attitudes. There are compromises, uncertainty, confusion, doubt, and fear written into the lives of the women who form the story.
PI Lee Arnold and his assistant Mumtaz Hakim, a widowed Muslim working mother, work out of an office in East Ham. The private investigation business isn’t making them rich. The Arnold Detective Agency is headed by an ex-cop, and his policeman skills and continued contacts bring a law enforcement structure to the story. The PI office is up a flight of stairs at the back of a rough alley behind Green Street, Upton Park. In the case of Mumtaz Hakim, who after her abusive husband’s death, is saddled with a large mortgage and secretly each month has pawned what remaining items of value she has to meet the payment. Her employer, Lee Arnold plays a smaller role in the overall story—when he appears it is as protector, comforter and advisor.
Mumtaz takes on a new case involving a Muslim woman named Nasreen whose husband Abdullah has received a law degree from the University of Manchester. It appears to be a traditional Muslim marriage. The novel starts with Nasreen discovering an ex-serviceman (he’d served in Afghanistan) living in a wooden shelter in the back garden. Nasreen hasn’t told her husband about the homeless man named John, who she has secretly been giving food. She fears her husband’s wrath. Abdullah, who is easy to anger, has more than his fair share of secrets from his past in Manchester and the place and name of the law firm where he tells his wife that he’s employed.
Abdullah is abusive and controlling, and his wife is afraid of him—and with good reason—he has no hesitation using physical violence. It is her fear of his explosive rages and demands that haunts her throughout the novel. She reaches out to Mumtaz, another Muslim woman, but steps back as her traditional values make it difficult for her to accept that her husband may have secrets of his own about his employment that he wishes to keep from her. Nasreen has a crisis of denial. This is a common link she shares with Mumtaz who is in denial (though for different reasons) about her economic prospects. Only Mumtaz has the perseverance to ultimately break through Nasreen’s failure to see what was in front of her all of the time.
The mystery unfolds as John Sawyer, the ex-vet is murdered, his body was dumped in an adjacent Jewish ceremony, and Abdullah takes a wrecking hammer to the walls of the newly acquired house. He tells his wife not to ask questions. That he’s renovating the house himself to save money. The house holds a crucial secret connected to Abdullah’s history. Each day he arrives back from work and sets to bring down another bit of wall. His wife believes he works as a lawyer for a firm of solicitors. As his entire life is built upon a foundation of lies and deceptions, he may have the right morality for legal work but it does make his biography difficult to take at face value.
As Mumtaz works the Nasreen case, she also has another client who wishes to find out if her sister Wendy Dixon is on the game. The sub-plot opens up the world of powerful and dangerous gangsters who are running a number of illegal rackets in East Ham. Sean Rogers, the head of the local mafia has the police, judges and other powerful people under his thumb. They along with wealthy men attend sex parties that Roberts hosts, supplying the escorts. No one has the courage to stand up to Rogers for fear of the violence that he’s capable of inflicting against anyone challenging his authority.
The central issue is one of coming to terms with cultural identity by Muslims in London. Abdullah’s secrets are caught up with his childhood and the deathbed secrets of his father that haunt him. In seeking to claim his cultural legacy, Abdullah will spare no one and no cost even though it will destroy others.
An Act of Kindness is a parable of chasing dreams of one’s father until they slowly turn into nightmares from which darkness claim the dreamer and all of those around him. The relationship of Nasreen and Mumtaz as Muslim women struggling with abusive husbands and debt sharing a bleak future reveals the emotional lives of culturally displaced women in London. Like a coming across a terrible road accident, your first reaction is to look away, and then you look, and you can stop seeing the pain and suffering.
And you wish the world had a way to sing a lullaby to those like Nasreen caught in the car wreckage of a life, one that comforts those who are inconsolable. Nasreen’s fate, like that of Wendy Dixon, an escort girl working in Sean Rogers’s sexual fantasy world, is determined by men like Abdullah and Rogers. Their fear freezes them. They are in the orbit of men with frightening power and whose careless brutality and violence acts as a gravity, bending, folding, distorting their futures. Finishing the novel, I felt a lingering sorrow, a cry from the heart, as the helplessness overwhelmed and ultimately destroyed the lives of several women.
There is little redemption in An Act of Kindness. Instead, the reader finishes the novel with a sense of real despair as the unfairness of what happened to each of these women was as irreversible and permanent as a cold, unmarked grave.