Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Modern Paris is a crucible of different cultures, religious backgrounds, and more So, it’s interesting when a novel’s focus isn’t so much the traditional French culture we often think of when we think of Paris. After all, members of many other cultures have made their homes there. Let’s take a look at one such novel today, and turn the spotlight on Karim Miské’s debut novel, Arab Jazz.
The novel opens as Ahmed Taroudant discovers that Laura Vignola, who lives in the apartment above his, has been brutally murdered. He’s got several reasons to care deeply about this killing. For one thing, he’d formed a sort of relationship with her, although it wasn’t really what you’d call a dating relationship. For another, he has a key to her apartment, and he was at home at the time of the murder. So, he’s smart enough to know he is a ‘person of interest.’ Mostly, though, he wants to find the person who killed Laura as a way of making up for the future they will never have together.
In the meantime, Lieutenants Rachel Kupferstein and Jean Hamelot begin the work of investigating the murder. Since Achmed was a friend of the victim, and had easy access to her apartment, he’s at the very least someone to interview at length. But both police detectives soon get the sense that he isn’t guilty. He’s not a violent person, and he had no disagreements with the victim.
Besides, there are other possibilities. For one thing, Laura’s parents were deeply devoted to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Laura, on the other hand, rejected that religion utterly and left home. Her parents – especially her mother – are fanatic enough that they might have killed her.
Religious fanaticism could also have played a different role in her murder. Groups of strictly observant Orthodox Jews and Orthodox Muslims live in the area. Laura, being neither, didn’t dress or behave as ‘proper’ orthodox women are supposed to do. And some of the people in the area might have been fanatic enough to punish her by killing her. There are aspects of the murder that point in that direction.
Little by little, Kupferstein and Hamelot learn more about Laura, her background, her friends, and her work. Meanwhile, Ahmed is working through some of his own issues and trying to do what he can to help bring his friend’s killer to justice. In the end, and each in a different way, the police and Ahmed find out the truth. They find that it leads to some dark places.
One of the important elements in this novel is a hard look at religious fanaticism. Paris’ 19th arrondissement is a melting pot of Jews, Muslims, and other religious groups. In general, they live together with no real problems. But there is tension among the groups, and there are fanatics who are quite willing to die or kill for their cause. And there is, at times, a sense of bigotry.
The novel takes place in modern Paris, but it’s not really the traditional Paris you read about in travel brochures. It’s a mélange of different people, food, music, and more. On the one hand, it’s vibrant and culturally very much alive. And there’s an interesting question of what, exactly, makes a person French in today’s world of globalism. On the other, it’s got a dark, gritty side.
And that gritty side is another part of this novel. There is violence in the story, some of it brutal and ‘onstage.’ Readers who dislike that sort of violence in their novels will want to know this. The solution to the mystery is in keeping with the story. Without spoiling the novel, I can say that this isn’t the sort of story where the ‘bad guy’ is caught, led away in handcuffs, and justice is done. Rather, it’s a case of, ‘We do the best we can. Evil will always be there, and we fight it as best we can.’ That said, though, the novel is not remorselessly bleak.
As the story evolves, we see the network of relationships among many of the characters. There’s Ahmed; the police detectives; the victim’s family; the victim’s friends; and more. This web of interactions and relationships plays an important role in the story. Readers will want to keep track of the ways in which the various characters are drawn together.
The story is told from several different points of view (third person, present tense, for the most part). Readers who prefer just one point of view, and past tense will notice this. In this way, Miské provides backstory on many of the characters. We also learn what motivates them, and we get their perspectives on the other characters. In their ways, all of the characters are carrying ‘baggage,’ and it impacts them all differently. None of the characters is what you’d call contented and at peace. And that’s consistent with the darkness in the novel.
Another element in this novel is the writing style. It’s not a straightforward telling of the story, as is the case with many crime novels. It’s more of a literary style. It’s also worth noting that the timeline is not strictly chronological. At times it shifts back and forth, as we gradually learn what, and who, is behind Laura’s death. Readers who prefer a more linear plot and a more chronological timeline will notice this.
Arab Jazz offers a look at one section of modern Paris. It tells the sometimes-dark story of a group of people who were all touched by one life, and what happens to them when she is murdered, and it offers a look at the way members of different religions and cultures interact. But what’s your view? Have you read Arab Jazz? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 11 February/Tuesday, 12 February – Only the Innocent – Rachel Abbott
Monday, 18 February/Tuesday, 19 February – The Blue Hour – Alonso Cueto
Monday, 25 February/Tuesday, 26 February – The Dark Lake – Sarah Bailey