Reviewed for Noir Journal: More Beer

In Jakob Arjouni's More Beer, outsider German-Turkish private detective Kemal Kayankaya navigates prejudice and Establishment corruption in 1987 West Germany with gruff DIY attitude. The English translation is now available in the US from Melville House. I reviewed it for Noir Journal and repost it here:

Jakob Arjouni’s tough and nonstop noir tale from 1987 could have been titled The Fifth Man.

Sure, private detective Kemal Kayankaya does like more beer, but he also can’t help sticking his nose where things stink. In More Beer, four so-called eco-terrorists in West Germany are accused of murdering the head of a Frankfurt chemical company whose products should, in a just world, get it accused of crimes of its own.

The four suspects had sabotaged the company’s chemical plant, but they deny murdering anyone. A fifth man was seen at the crime, yet no one in authority seems willing to find him. In a tight spot, the defendants’ lawyer hires Kayankaya to track down the missing fifth suspect.

If private detectives are outsiders in fiction, Kayankaya is doubly so. Born in Turkey but raised in West Germany, Kayankaya gets hit with ignorance, cruel insults and outright assault as he chips away at the case no one wants. In the 1960s, West Germany had invited Turks to come help the country rebuild and flourish, but now it doesn’t want to know about Turks in its midst. It even seems to resent them for it. If this was set in America, it would be (in a simplistic analogy) as if our hardboiled detective was black or Mexican and operating in a far less tolerant era.

Kayankaya can take the slurs and blows after a lifetime of both. He fires back with a sharp wit, yet it’s not only the dialogue that keeps us following our Turk PI. We aren’t told a lot about him so we learn a lot through how he acts and reacts. He’ll shout and insult back and go to the fist if need be; he’ll wear it on his sleeve but he’ll leave it on yours. To those with wealth, reputation and career to protect even when it’s a stranglehold, Kayankaya appears to be a lazy, uncaring problem child — and a dire threat. Yet he’s the only one who cares, in his way, and he’s willing to keep after the truth.

In this translation from Anselm Hollo, few words do a ton of work. This isn’t literary fiction disguised as crime noir. In one passage, Kayankaya fails to address a suspect named Schmidi as “Mister.”

Schmidi shoots back: “Mr. Schmidi. I don’t call you rat-Turk.”

Kayankaya: “So that’s what you want to get off your chest all this time?”

“You better leave while the going is good. 

“Yes, I might just give in to the urge to beat the name of that fifth guy out of you.”

Some of it may come through as clunky in translation, but it always moves the story along.

The eco-terrorism threat is a ruse used by the forces of complacency and corruption, Kayankaya learns. A sad and thorny love scandal holds the real crime. There are shades of Chinatown here, though without the imposing Noah Cross figure. The staid Establishment in the West German state of Hessia fills that role, arrogant and entitled and getting a little jumpy.

One passage hits at the futility of the little guy versus ruthless power — Kayankaya’s small-time dealer sidekick, Slibulsky, comments on the real possibility of getting killed for their efforts:

“And who would give a f*ck? Some little dealer from the railroad station, and a Turkish snooper. That doesn’t even rate a mention on the morning news. They’d just plow us under in a hurry. So you risk your life for something you believe is justice, and end up in the compost heap. What’s justice, anyway? It doesn’t exist, not today, not tomorrow. And you won’t bring it about, either. You’re doing the same scheiss-work as any cop ... you won’t change a thing about the fact that it’s always the same guys who do something, who get caught — not a thing, because the rules are set up that way.”

Supporting characters like Slibulsky and the grim Frankfurt settings are superbly drawn, and they deliver details that surprise. Who knew that arsenic was capable of improving one’s beauty in the right doses, even as it’s causing death?

I had few complaints. We know little about Kayankaya other than that he was born a Turk but raised by German parents. I wanted to know why and how he’s fallen so low. Usually I don’t need such background in a hardboiled tale, but Kayankaya’s unique background left me wanting to know. Also, the journalist Carla Reedermann seems underdeveloped, disappearing for much of the story. 

Kayankaya doesn’t need her help in the end. He makes enough waves on his own, whether it’s in a sea of foul muck or too many liters of beer. 

More Beer was a hit in Germany when it came out, and the English translation is now available in the US from Melville House. Arjouni’s other Kayankaya novels include Happy Birthday Turk, Magic Hoffmann and One Man, One Murder, for which he won the German Crime Fiction Award (Deutscher Krimi Preis) in 1992.


The review at Noir Journal is part of the "No Frills Book Review Marathon."