Translation by Rachel Ward
Thank goodness for Orenda Books. Without them I would have missed out on some amazingly original fiction in the past year and some quirky, unique characters. I’m always surprised and often fascinated with the stories I encounter and Mexico Street was no exception. This is a crime novel with ill-fated lovers on the side, and a wisecracking, badass heroine to tell the story. It’s noir with a sense of humour.
This is the third of Simone Bucholz’s novels to feature state investigator Chastity Riley, but can be read as a stand-alone novel. At first Chastity presents as a bit washed up. She’s unkempt and tired looking. Her hair hasn’t seen a comb in a while, plenty of drinking and smoking as well as a chronic lack of sleep have taken their toll. However, if her looks make you think she’s less than capable, you’d be wrong. She has a very dry sense of humour, a sharp mind and is the best person to get to the bottom of this mystery. Cars are being set on fire all over the world, but here in Hamburg. one car has a man inside. His death needs close investigation, because it could have links to a well known crime family. The victim is Nouri Sarakhan. Nouri is the estranged son of a local gangster, is that the motive or is this just a coincidence?
Chastity’s partner, Stepanovic, is a an insomniac. If he sleeps, he dreams and he needs to avoid those. Chastity and Stepanovic, are a good team. He is supportive and a good friend as well as a partner even though they do spar and bicker. There’s a hint he would like to be more than friends, and the appearance of Chastity’s ex creates a gentle rivalry. Chastity and Stepanovic investigate the Sarakhan family, an immigrant clan denounced both by their own country and Germany. In fact, they are only allowed to stay in Germany, because there is nowhere else to send them. Their culture is very traditional and patriarchal so their treatment of women is misogynistic. The lovers at the centre of the story are our other two narrators. They come from different families so there’s a modern Romeo and Juliet feel to their story. Bucholz is evoking a different Hamburg from the one people might know. This is not on the average tourist trail. Even where one of their number has been killed, these closed communities don’t trust the police and will not cooperate with the investigation. Every scene in the investigation is full of tension and I was never sure of what would happen next.
The author creates s unique reading experience, with a combination of short, punchy sentences and others that read like poetry. It isn’t verbose though, even where a line is poetic, there’s never a word wasted. Through it all Chastity narrates the story with a dry wit that’s irresistible. Chastity’s chapters are alternated with narration from a younger Nouri. He tells us about a forbidden love affair with Aliza Anteri, a young woman from a rival family. These narratives add other layers to the novel, and describe families focused completely on the cohesion of their clan. There’s no room for individualism here, only the clan and their criminal enterprises matter. One man can’t stand against this; he simply doesn’t count. As Aliza has found out, women matter even less. Her story is a complicated one, full of troubles and heartache. As for Nouri, was his death the result of his love for Aliza or was it his desire to move away from his family’s criminal activities towards a more legitimate career?
I had no doubt that Chastity would solve the crime, but that doesn’t mean this is a formulaic crime novel. Far from it. The combination of the author’s unique writing style, Chastity’s dry wit and the young couple’s complex story, creates an original and engaging read. The way Chastity sees her environment and the people in it is so enjoyable. However, she’s not just toughness and dry wit, the author allows her to grow and become more self-aware. The setting comes to life, but it is the seedy, dark, underbelly of the city. Let’s just say I haven’t wanted to put Hamburg on my bucket list! At the centre of it all is a gritty and disturbing story that keeps the attention throughout. Now I need to go away and read the first two novels.