Poisoned Ground by Barbara Nadel

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Reviewed by Danielle Simpson

In PI Lee Arnold and his assistant Mumtaz Hakim Barbara Nadel has created two of the most unusual and intriguing characters to populate a crime novel that I’ve come across in a long time.  Lee is a former cop and ex-military man with all the attendant baggage you expect a worthy crime solver to have.   He’s divorced and a recovering alcoholic, barely scraping together a living through his private detective agency.   In an early scene in the book he’s got his head in the gas cooker scrubbing away, with his pet mynah bird Chronus, who favors West Ham United songs, crooning away in the background.  When it comes to his work Lee is all business though he has an unfortunate aptitude for getting knocked over the head and generally roughed up in his work.  He was in the hospital no less than two times over the course of the story.  I was beginning to get worried about him.

It’s his partner Mumtaz who adds a little spice to the story.  I’d call it a nice bit of exoticism, but she’s much more than a little added local color, the agency being in East London.  She’s a Muslim of Bangladeshi origin who happens to wear the veil.  Mumtaz carries her own baggage.  She’s widowed with a teenage stepdaughter.  Like Lee she is barely getting by, but her troubles are mainly thanks to a family of gangsters who are blackmailing her over her husband’s debts.  It seems a messy affair but Mumtaz keeps her problems closely guarded from both Lee and her stepdaughter.  I suspect this is an issue that Nadel will enjoy fleshing out over the course of the series.  (As a matter of fact by the story’s end Mumtaz’s problems become even more complicated, setting the stage for the next mystery).

Knowing a little about Lee’s and Mumtaz’s lives adds depth to their characters, makes them more interesting and gives a nice roundness to them, but it’s the cases they become involved in that move the story along at a nice clip.  Poisoned Ground is the third mystery in the Hakim & Arnold series.  I prefer to begin at the beginning when it comes to mysteries, though I never felt out of my depth joining in after the party had started so to speak.  It’s a nod to Nadel’s skill as a storyteller that I never felt adrift, yet I knew from the first chapter that I would have to go back and see how it all started.

If you think you know London, either real or in my case imagined (via good books), you might be surprised by the London Nadel writes about.  Crime is rarely unique, but it’s the players who have changed in this telling, segments of society that are less often subjects of crime novels.  You get a real sense that Barbara Nadel knows well of what she writes and indeed she was born in London’s East End, an area that has known crushing poverty.  The diversity of East London is reflected in her story—an area filled with immigrant families of a variety of origins and religious and social orientations.

While Lee is embroiled in an investigation involving a missing person, Mumtaz agrees to take on a case in the Muslim community.  As a veiled Muslim woman, and perhaps the only one in all of London, she feels a responsibility to help other women no matter what their religion.  Even if it means putting herself on the line despite Lee’s concerns for her safety.  In the opening pages of the story a young woman jumps to her death from an upper window of a psychiatric hospital.  Her death, deemed a suicide and quietly filed away, is at the heart of the story, but it unsurprisingly becomes lost in the muddle of bureaucratic red tape and politics.  But it’s her death that is the momentum that will bring to light corruption and greed that always seems to be found in places like the Ilford Hospital.

Mumtaz is hired by the wife of an Egyptian immigrant who has been jailed after a bomb was found in his locker.  He was a nurse at Ilford and at odds with one of the psychiatric doctors.  The two share the same Egyptian heritage but are on opposite ends of the political spectrum.  The jailed man’s wife is certain her husband was framed.  Coincidentally the doctor has been accused of acting inappropriately towards his patients, one of which was the dead girl.

Good crime novels, the sort I most enjoy anyway, have a nice complexity about them and are peopled with complex characters–detectives, victims and accused alike.  The story moves between the two investigations.  Lee follows the missing man’s father and watches while he spends thousands of dollars at casinos.  Money that may well have come from the sale of the missing man’s home, a home he shared with a wife.  She’s hired Lee to track him down, concerned less with the money he seems to have absconded with than his welfare.  It’s a tricky case as he’s hidden himself well.  Things come to a head with both investigations at an abandoned, antiquated hotel that in former days had a tunnel running to the Thames, providing a nice nail-biting moment against an atmospheric background.

This is my first Barbara Nadel mystery but will most certainly not be my last.  I hadn’t even finished Poisoned Ground before the first two Hakim and Arnold mysteries landed on my reading pile.  Nadel is also the author of the longstanding Inspector Ikmen series set in Turkey as well as a series of mysteries set in London’s East End during WWII.  If you’ve not yet discovered Barbara Nadel, and how did I ever miss her work, prepare to be entertained.

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Danielle blogs at A Work in Progress and could easily live on a steady diet of crime novels and mysteries if she let herself.

Danielle interviewed Barbara Nadel too – see here.

Barbara Nadel, Poisoned Ground: A Hakim and Arnold Mystery (London: Quercus, 2014).  9781848664197, 432 pp., hardback.

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