Review: by Christopher G.
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
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
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
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
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.