Kismet • More Beer • One Man, One Murder •Happy Birthday, Turk!
By Jakob Arjouni
“Crime=Culture.”So says Dumbo publisher Melville House about their new imprint, Melville International Crime. MIC represents the publisher’s latest venture to expand their existing catalog of fiction in translation, but although Melville House has introduced innovative series before, cultivating a line of international crime novels is not a particularly new idea. Gowanus-based Akashic Books launched its city-specific Noir series in 2004, and Soho Crime was dedicated to armchair travel and murder long before the Stieg Larsson boom. However, it is interesting to see a boutique press like Melville turn its attention to genre fiction.
Among the first books published by MIC are the “Kanyankaya Thrillers”by German author Jakob Arjouni. His private eye Kemal Kanyankaya is a character straight out of Hammet and a quintessential outsider-investigator: an ethnic Turk raised by adoptive German parents, he has always lived between two worlds in his hometown of Frankfurt, never entirely comfortable in either.
Happy Birthday, Turk! (easily the best in the series) finds the down-and-out Kanyankaya hired by a Turkish woman to track down the killer of her husband, a laborer whose death isn’t a high priority for local police. More Beer takes the suspicious conviction of four “eco-terrorists”in a bombing and murder as its premise; in One Man, One Murder, a German man hires the PI to find his girlfriend, a Thai prostitute who was kidnapped while trying to collect forged visa papers. Kismet, the most recent installment, finds Kanyankaya facing off with a violent Croatian gang. All unfold in a matter of days and are laced with Kanyankaya’s engagingly laconic sarcasm. There’s also a frank brutality which affirms the high stakes of each case and the lengths that Kanyankaya will go to get his man: he’s drugged, attacked by rats, suffers joint dislocations, is locked in a room full of tear gas, and is roundly beaten on numerous occasions.
Individually, however, the series is spotty. In both More Beer and One Man, One Murder, the intrigues become so entangled that it’s hard to care when Kanyankaya reveals whodunit—after making several key discoveries to which the reader is not privy. The detective’s understandable bitterness at being treated as an interloper or a fetish object feels increasingly belabored as he subjects every potential client to the same litmus test: “You must have checked the Yellow Pages. But why Kanyankaya, why not Müller?”And while he continues to investigate several cases after being fired and gives an impassioned speech about disenfranchised immigrants in Germany, he’s by no means an idealist. Treating housewives, prostitutes, buddies, and corrupt officials with equal disdain, it’s hard to believe that he ever cares much about the people involved in his investigations—he just wants the satisfaction of winning.
With this new imprint, Melville is capitalizing on their strengths in ways which stand to benefit both their current and potential audiences. Crime fiction fans are generally completists who want to read all of a favorite detective’s cases—even the rocky ones. And Melville has a knack for series—they’ve resurrected the novella as a viable (and marketable) form with their brilliant “Art of the Novella”line, establishing their press as a quality arbiter of taste while also engendering something like brand loyalty.
By expanding into international crime fiction, Melville stands to create a similar loyalty among new readers. Any even marginally good crime novel serves as a shorthand introduction to the social concerns, epochal tensions, and defining fears of its culture, the way the Kanyankaya thrillers address Germany’s struggle with immigration, cultural inclusion, and nationalism. Crime is culture, made accessible.