“Then there’s a roar and everyone goes for each other, with machetes and swords and. . .”
This is a powerfully excoriating noir, not for the comfortable or the complacent and definitely not for the ostriches out there, this novel is for crime readers who like confronting life’s iniquity. Mexico Street is for readers who want to understand a little better the reasons behind the darkest explosions of human behaviour that blight society. Sure, it’s dark but that’s not to say you won’t have fun, there are some nice comic touches, plenty of delicious sarcasm, and you will come to love being in the company of crazy, passionate, wrecking ball prosecutor, Chastity Riley.
I anticipated much from Mexico Street because I know Buchholz to be an exceptional crime writer, I know how good her first two novels in English are. But I’m greedy I want more, I hold her to a higher standard, I’m looking for this novel to be more challenging, harder hitting, more relevant, I want urgent, I even want super cool – I get it. Mexico Street stirs my blood, I’m outraged for the victims of brutality and careless indifference. I’m intellectually and emotionally engaged by this novel, it rends my heart but I can take it as long as Buchholz keeps it real – true to life. She says;
“It’s about investigating life, investigating souls.”
I believe that.
Buchholz has been described as the ‘Queen of Krimi’, she is one of Germany’s finest crime writers, a two time winner of the prestigious Deutscher Krimipreis, most recently for Mexico Street in 2019. I hope this is the novel that garners the same attention in the UK, it’s the third Chastity Riley novel to be published here and it deserves recognition.
I was hooked from the first paragraph of the first novel, Blue Night, I knew this would be a special series in the best noir traditions, Mexico Street confirms that. I was struck by the author’s compassionate exploration of human frailty and deviance, she has an incisive eye. What comes across even more forcefully in Mexico Street is Buchholz’s condemnation of violence, particularly the casual, tacitly accepted level of male brutality to women, which is accompanied by a sense of entitlement and ownership:
“Now that he’s a man he’s completely lost the desire to ask anything. Men don’t ask questions, men give answers.”
This is what she said when I interviewed her at the London Book Fair in 2019:
“I think that writing about violence has to always be writing against violence. That’s the point.”
Crime writing has long ceased to be a right wing wet dream, it’s now more about exploring society’s ills than delivering ‘righteous’ punishment. Buchholz goes further, her novels are radical, feminist, anti-fascist, for the underdog, the downtrodden, for a better, fairer, safer place to live. She is the very definition of the Sankt Pauli rebel heart, (district of Hamburg). Buchholz is one of the most distinctive and original voices in European crime fiction and her writing just keeps getting better. If you haven’t met Hamburg prosecutor Chastity Riley you ought to. Chastity prefers the night to the day, drinks like a fish, lives in the moment and often to the max, she scorns the rule book, and she can’t be bothered with the boys club mentality. But when trouble comes to town she heads up a relentless posse to see it off again.
Noir is taut and sparse, Buchholz goes that step further, the story is at times fragmentary; dealing in glimpses, blurred sketches, emotions and key plot revelations, it works, it’s a style not easily mastered but it’s powerful and poetic when done well. Mexico Street is very well done.
Tunnels only have two ways out, two fearful people live in dread of the future and are always looking over their shoulders for their past catching up. They talk about price, why would any human being have a price?
The crime scene is the bleak, empty City Nord. A tumble weed plastic bag swirling in the air, fallen plaster under foot, this is a stone and glass prairie: ‘brutal boulders in washed concrete’. The emergency services arrive very quickly, someone called them, so the black Fiat Panda is only half consumed by flames. This is nothing new, cars burn across the city every night, a helicopter is despatched at dawn to find them. But this time is different, there’s a man inside the car, barely alive, twelve minutes of smoke inhalation, they break him out, get him to the Barmbek hospital, they aren’t hopeful he’ll survive.
Early morning calls depress Chastity, she not at her best, she wonders why people focus on the offence, anger at the burning cars, rather than confronting what would make someone do this in the first place. The car documents aren’t burned, the vehicle has belonged to Nouri Sarroukhan since 2014; twenty-eight, from Bremen, a resident of the Grindel high-rises in Hamburg. An officer from Bremen recognises the family name, this could be gang related. That gives Chastity the excuse to call Ivo Stepanovic, SCO44, a special unit dealing with serious and organised crime. He claims to be home but Chastity knows Ivo, he never sleeps at night, they have that in common, there’s a woman and music in the background, they aren’t a couple why did he lie? Stepanovic turns up in his brown Mercedes, he spots a red head girl watching from the roof of the car park on the corner of Mexico Street. They chase her but she’s an expert in escape routes. A call from the hospital – Nouri has died. Stepanovic sets up an incident room, he trusts Chastity and her suggestion to bring Calabretta and his murder squad team on board. A collection of old friends and stalwarts from the earlier books are assembling, including Chastity’s own little gang of friends. Will working together rekindle Chastity and Ivo Stepanovic’s love affair?
Are the Sarroukhan family moving in on Hamburg? Stepanovic and Chastity head to Bremen, local officer Baumann fills them in on the Sarroukhan family history, they are a Lebanese clan. They are Mhallami, originally from southern Turkey, not really mafia, they don’t have the connections to power. The Mhallami are survivors of the 1930s Turkification when they fled to a Kurdish refugee camp in Lebanon. Later attacked by the Christian militia during the Lebanese civil war they fled to Germany. There are 3,000 people with the same family name in Bremen; lawyers and doctor, but also villains into illegal gambling, car hire theft, fake police scams, drugs, and fruit machines. The local police are so busy dealing with the fall out of violence they have no time to tackle the actual underlying criminality. It’s a shock for Chastity when they go to the family home to let them know about their son, Nouri, only to be told they have no son by that name, (Nouri was disowned). There’s a tension and violence across the country, a disconcerting backdrop to the story;
“The blood flowed fast and in a variety of ways, it flowed from the back of heads, from mouths, thighs, knees, bellies.”
When the police turn up to a mass brawl four of them were shot, one killed. Life for Mhallami children is tough, ‘If you asked the wrong question, you got a slap.’ It’s worse for the girls;
“My brother’s threatened me since the moment I was born.”
Cars burn across Germany, all over Europe, around the world. Is everything going to hell in a hand basket? Even so this one little murder matters, Chastity cares, cares about Nouri, cares about finding out who killed him. Finding the mysterious Aliza, the one person who may care enough to help them solve this crime, is a priority.
Rachel Ward has now translated all three of Simone Buchholz’s Chastity Riley novels, she has brilliantly captured the spirit of the original for the English language reader.
Mexico Street is loaded with sadness and tragedy, it has echoes of Romeo and Juliet and the epic duelling clans of The Big Country. This is order reduced to chaos. Themes include the pernicious nature of patriarchy and male entitlement, Mexico Street is a powerful voice for those who can’t speak for themselves. This novel screams read me, enjoy me, but think about me too.
Paul Burke 5/5*
Mexico Street by Simone Buchholz
9781913193157 Orenda Paperback 5th March 2020