Top positive review
Nadel at her brilliant best, confronting tensions in the modern East End. Insightful, intelligent and hugely timely. Outstanding
on 13 May 2016
An absolutely cracking start to the Hakim and Arnold series with Barbara Nadel firing on all cylinders and the introduction to her new pairing, ex-policeman Lee Arnold and his assistant, an early thirties headscarf wearing Muslim window in Mumtaz Hakim. An original East End boy Lee is seeking to establish his private investigations business and in need of an assistant and occasional secretary. Lee hires Mumtaz, impressed by her psychology degree and also somewhat intrigued, well aware that he is taking a risk. Despite wearing a headscarf, Mumtaz is a thoroughly modern woman, long established in the local Bangladeshi community and trying to make a new life for herself and sixteen-year old step-daughter, Shazia. Things are far from easy for Mumtaz following the murder of her husband, the debts that he has left hanging over her head and her often interfering parents eager to see their daughter married off.
When Lee is approached by Maria Peters, a notorious 1980s comedian remembered for her "mouth like a sewer", she raises concerns that she is being followed and someone has access to her home. Given that she is trying to revive her career following the death of her husband she might seem a likely target for vigilantes opposed to her politically incorrect comedy, but her own concerns that she might be imagining things alert Lee to her fragile mental state. Arnold agrees to a 24/7 surveillance operation and brings the psychology knowledge of Mumtaz into play as they dig deeper into Maria's personal life. When Mumtaz suspects that Maria is hiding something and the full extent of her connections to a local "happy-clappy" church and some remarkably shifty friends emerges, it is time to alert the police. As the duo become increasingly concerned that Pastor Paul Grint may not have Maria's best intentions at heart they threaten to open up a can of worms with the revelations they uncover. Meanwhile at Forest Gate station DI Vi Collins has her superiors on her back as a flasher hanging around the Olympic Park is one spectacle that the great and the good are eager to stamp out before the cameras arrive for London 2012!
Each and everyone of Nadel's characters is well fleshed out, especially jaded DI Vi Collins, with her feisty attitude and her take no prisoners attitude. Vi knows Lee of old and as the investigations cross into each others territory she brings much to the novel and forges a genuine bond with Mumtaz. The extended family of Mumtaz also works well and despite their wish for a suitable husband to support Mumtaz, her father, Baharat, is a refreshingly modern voice, most notably for his vocal incomprehension of the extremists who are to blame for fuelling much of the rising Islamophobia within the community.
Nadel also considers how the headscarf that Mumtaz wears provokes differing reactions in society, from the BNP militants, to the born and bred East Londoners down to how the men within her own culture treat her. Pretty soon Mumtaz proves her worth and the willingness of the Muslim women to trust her attracts a new demographic to the agency and she soon has her own cases, with the community valuing her discretion and understanding of the religious implications that many of their situations involve.
Nadel manages to provide a real social context to this novel as she weaves in the build up to Stratford hosting the Olympics in 2012. As money is poured into funding a glamorous stadium the realities for the majority of the community are much starker and the "inflated importance" that the event has achieved is a frequent gripe among the characters. Not only does Nadel draw in the Olympic Games, she makes reference to the London riots and the rise of Islamphobia in the wake of 9/11 and the introduction of anti-terrorism laws. Nadel also bravely raises the investigative difficulties when the practices of some other cultures begin to show signs of making inroads in the UK, most specifically with her treatment of witchcraft, and her honestly and colour on a modern East End is admirable.
Nobody does the East End better than Nadel as she paints a portrait of a changing London, never seeking to preach, just presenting things as they are and recognising that within every culture, race and religion you get "wrong un's". A timely and insightful novel and a reminder than there is a much darker side to unquestioning faith, whatever the religion. No topic is off limits and her characters tell it like it is, making for a vibrant new series full of local colour and makes for an authentically honest portrait of London. Outstanding, original and highly recommended.
Review written by Rachel Hall (@hallrachel).