Tuesday, 17 August 2021

The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

In 1952, merchant seaman and occasional petty thief, Mahmood Mattan is put on trial for the brutal murder of Cardiff shopkeeper Lily Volpert. You wouldn’t hang a dog on the evidence brought before the court – but Mahmood is a Black man in post-war south Wales. He was hanged on 3rd September 1952, the last person to be executed in Wales. Almost half a century later, he became the first person to have his conviction quashed under the newly established Criminal Cases Review Commission.

In this superb novel by Nadifa Mohamed, shortlisted for the 2021 Booker Prize, Mahmood Mattan is finally given the voice he was never afforded in life. Mohamed has immersed herself in the details of Mahmood’s life to give us a fully rounded picture of the man. We don’t just walk beside him through the trial, onto death row and ultimately through the doors of the execution chamber: we are inside his mind. We inhabit his sense of his own innocence and his faith in British justice, his rage when it fails him, the meditative state he reaches (for a time) when contemplating his own death.

The Fortune Men serves to remind us that Cardiff is one of the oldest established multi-ethnic communities in the UK, that is was a place of “robed Yemenis and Somalis marching to celebrate Eid, of elaborate funeral corteges for the last of the rich captains of Loudon Square, of Catholic children clad in white on Corpus Cristi […] of makeshift calypso bands busking to raise enough money to tour the country, of street dice games descending into happy laughter or nasty threats, of birdlike whores preening their feathers to catch a passing punter.”

But it was also a place of entrenched racism, where “a woman had given him a real stinker of a look, a real ‘get back in your mother’s hole’ look. At him! With his three-piece suit and silk scarf, while the old bat had on a rain jacket that hadn’t seen a laundry since the war. It was too much.”

Deep as we are in Mahmood’s mind, the story is not told in the first person, and that gives us the perspective to see the myriad ways in which, in the context of entrenched attitudes, Mahmood becomes the author of his own destruction: when he lies and dissembles and pretends to be something he is not, when simple honesty might have served him better.

We also get to meet Mahmood’s Welsh wife, Laura, with whom relations are strained at time of his arrest, but who remained loyal to him to the very end and who never stopped fighting to clear his name. We get a sense of their relationship, complicated but full of warmth.

Nor does Mohamed forget the victim and her family, for whom justice is not served. What is it like to know that someone you hold dear has been brutally murdered while you sit, on the other side of a wall, eating supper, telling a joke, looking forward to going to a dance? How do you deal with the aftermath of that?

An exceptional novel, grounded in a little-known slice of British history, that lays bare the human consequences of racism and injustice.

It is well worth reading this interview with Mohamed about her inspiration for writing this book, and the process by which she immersed herself in Mahmood’s life.

And for more background on Cardiff’s multicultural history, I can recommend Sean Fletcher’s documentary for S4C: Terfysg yn y Bae [Trouble in the Bay], which covers the Cardiff Race Riots of 1919. (Includes English-language subtitles.)

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins, A Death in the East by Abir Mukherjee, The Empty Vessel by JJ Marsh,

Avoid If You Dislike: A close-up perspective of life under a sentence of death

Perfect Accompaniment: A mug of strong tea and ‘We Three’ by the Ink Spots

Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Wednesday, 11 August 2021

How To Kidnap The Rich by Rahul Raina

Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

“The first kidnapping wasn’t my fault. 
The others – they definitely were.”

I have to thank the brilliant Red Hot Chilli Writers podcast for introducing me to this dark and very funny satire on life in contemporary India.

Ramesh Kumar is a not quite a slum kid, but his life is pretty precarious. His father runs a chai stall in Old Delhi, and Ramesh spends most of his days grinding spices rather than attending school.

“My father and I lived in a one-room concrete shell, down an alley, then down another, and another, from the place Western tour guides said was the real India, the one with piles of spices, women in mango-coloured saris, men who smelled of hair oil and incense and dragged cows behind them, stately and fat; the one where whites got out of their AC jeeps and said who overwhelmed they were by the sights and sounds. This India, my India, smells like shit.”

This is Ramesh’s life, until the formidable Sister Claire takes him under his wing. For Ramesh is clever, very clever indeed. Clever enough that he begins taking exams for rich boys too lazy to study for themselves. It’s a nice little earner. Until one day he does just a little too well. He comes top in the All India’s – plunging his client, Rudi, into the national limelight.

Rudi becomes a quiz show host, darling of mothers all over India, and his and Ramesh’s fates become irrevocably bound to one another. But still Ramesh manages to walk a tightrope between success and disaster. Until Rudi offends the son of the wrong man. And the two of them are kidnapped.

The voice of Ramesh, as the first-person narrator of the tale, comes across loud and clear -and very funny. The prime target of his razor-sharp wit is the greed of modern Indian capitalism. But that doesn’t stop him taking some well-aimed swipes at the West, and especially the West’s infatuation with its own notion of ‘India’.

Raina paints a fascinating portrait of the multiple layers of society living cheek by jowl in modern Delhi.

“This was a nice-part, a lower-middle-class striver part of Delhi, on-the-up Delhi, half-filled-metro-hole Delhi […]. I wasn’t even talking about the really foul parts […] where people lived like gnats on a lemur’s ballsack, where everyone was missing teeth or organs or legs and nothing got better even as the GDPs and HDIs were going up, up, up all over United Nations PowerPoint slides.”

But it is Ramesh's escapades with Rudi, as they dig themselves ever deeper in the mess (largely) of their own making that will keep you turning the page deep into the night.

A glorious crime-caper romp wrapped up in a social satire -and a voice I can’t wait to hear more of.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, Q&A by Vikas Swarup, East of Hounslow by Khurrum Rhaman

Avoid If You Dislike: A dose of laughter with your peril (or vice versa).

Perfect Accompaniment:
A cup of spiced chai

Genre: Crime, Humour

Buy This Book Here

Wednesday, 4 August 2021

The Dying Day by Vaseem Khan

Catriona Troth

What We Thought Of It:

As a lifetime fan of Golden Age Detective Fiction (especially the novels of Dorothy L Sayers) and a bit of a Dante obsessive, this book could have been written for me!

This is the second outing for Persis Wadia, India’s first female police inspector. This time she is summoned to the offices of the Royal Asiatic Society because one of their senior researchers has gone missing – along with a priceless manuscript of Dante’s Divine Comedy, whose loss has the power to trigger a major diplomatic incidence.

The initial assumption is that Healy, the researcher, must have stolen the manuscript. But if so, why has he left behind a series of cryptic clues? And where are they leading?

At the same time Persis is trying to wrestle with her own complicated feelings towards her rumpled forensic colleague, Archie Blackfinch, as well as the problem of the dead body of a high-class white prostitute, found dismembered by the railway line.

Persis is faced with a range of clues from riddles and cryptic crosswords to full-on book ciphers (a favourite of DL Sayers). We are led from the Divine Comedy via Alice Through the Looking Glass to the King James Bible. Khan, no doubt wisely, avoids getting bogged down in the intricate details of how to solve a book cipher, but leaves plenty to challenge the little grey cells.

Persis Wadia’s debut outing, Midnight at Malabar House, has just won the 2021 Historical Dagger Award for Crime Fiction. This, the second novel in the series, does not disappoint! It is a fascinating and nuanced portrait of a newly independent India, as well as a mystery that would delight the original members of the formidable Detection Club.

(I can highly recommend the excellent Red Hot Chilli Writers podcast, hosted by Khan and his fellow masala-noir author, Abir Mukerjee. If you listen, you might just detect an echo of the bickering of Persis’s father and his friend Dr Aziz in the banter between the two hosts.)

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Midnight at Malabar House by Vaseem Khan; Have His Carcase by Dorothy L Sayers.

Avoid If You Dislike: Literary puzzles

Perfect Accompaniment: Lime and soda

Genre: Crime, Historical Fiction

Buy This Book Here