Jakob Arjouni’s Happy Birthday, Turk! is a detective novel about a Turkish-born, German-raised, private investigator in Frankfurt named Kemal Kayankaya. When Itler Ergün hires him to find her husband Ahmed Hamul’s murderer, the reader follows Kemal on his three day long investigation into a world full of crime, drugs, prostitution and corruption.
Based on the title one would expect the novel to confront issues of identity and multiculturalism directly. Throughout this novel, issues of racism were causally recurrent but the main focus of the book was on solving the crime. The author probably chose the detective genre in order to make the storyline more complex in an effort to break down the stereotypes of foreigners and confront our understanding of criminality. For example, both Vasif and Ahmed’s deaths could have been prevented had Vasif not feared deportation after getting into a car accident. The authorities exploited Vasif’s fears by forcing him into the drug trade.
The most interesting aspect of the story is also the most obvious: a Turkish-born private investigator. Kemal is constantly met with suspicion as he pursues his investigation whether it be from potential suspects or within law enforcement. The author creates an ambivalence surrounding Kemal’s profession. Is it strange that he is a private investigator in and of itself, or strange that a Turk is in this profession? The other Turkish characters seem to fit stereotypes of being involved in crime and having dirty jobs. Itler has a traditional Turkish family, both Kemal and Itler’s deceased fathers had been garbage men, and Ahmed and Vasif (Itler’s father) had been drug dealers prior to being killed. The fact that Kemal does not fit the stereotype makes the ending of the story all the more ironic. Justice is brought against corrupt German officials (the real criminals) by a Turk. The officials even hesitate when told to arrest their German colleagues because they would have rather arrested Kemal, the Turk.
Review by Ashley Gayles