Written by Barbara Nadel — Set in East London, An Act of Kindness sees PI Lee Arnold and his assistant Mumtaz Hakim struggling for work. It’s 2012 and Olympics fever is in the air. Lee has been hired by an old school gangster to investigate his young wife, whom he believes to be cheating on him, while Mumtaz is working for a Mrs Mirza. She’s finding out if Mrs Mirza’s sister has been involved in prostitution.
Meanwhile, young Asian couple Nasreen and Abdullah are newly married and have just won a bid at auction for a dilapidated house in Upton Park. Determined to get it ready to move into, Nasreen spends much of her time fixing it up on her own while Abdullah is preoccupied with his job. One day, Nasreen meets John Sawyer, an Afghanistan vet. Since his discharge, John has become homeless and now lives in a shack in Nasreen’s garden. She starts to regularly leave food out for him, and soon a friendship develops between the two, which is kept secret from her husband.
When a dead body discovered in a Jewish graveyard turns out to be John’s, Nasreen starts to suspect Abdullah. The curious thing is that a skeleton has been found with his corpse. Reluctant to go to the police, she reaches out to the Arnold Detective Agency. She uses the photograph of a woman and a capsule she found hidden behind the paint on the front door as an excuse for contacting them, and claims she wants the history of the house investigated. Once they’ve started looking into the house, and she feels more comfortable, she asks Mumtaz to investigate her husband. Mumtaz is finding out about both Abdullah and the house, and comes across information that Nasreen is not ready to hear.
This is an unusual crime fiction novel since the story doesn’t follow the murder investigation of John Sawyer and the mysterious skeleton found in the graveyard, although this is touched upon. Rather the book focuses more on Lee Arnold and Mumtaz Hakim in their investigations and their daily lives. Mumtaz has a step-daughter and is widowed. She has serious problems due to the amount of debt her murdered husband left behind, a debt which is owed to some dodgy men who will do anything to get it back. Mumtaz tries to hide her problems from Lee who has guessed the truth after seeing Mumtaz regularly bring in valuables to take to the pawn shop. Lee (an ex-policeman, ex-alcoholic) tries to give Mumtaz what he can even though he is struggling for money himself.
Lee and Mumtaz are an unlikely pair, which makes them all the more likeable. Mumtaz is a devout Muslim woman who deeply cares about her daughter and will do anything to protect her. Lee, on the other hand, doesn’t believe in or care about much (other than Mumtaz). We can see that Lee is feels compelled to protect Mumtaz and this helps you engage with the characters.
The storyline has a slow start and sometimes the plot focuses too much on Mumtaz’s personal life which takes attention away from the murder investigation and the investigation into Abdullah. It is hard to see why there is so much interest in the capsule found behind Nasreen’s front door, for instance. However, persevere and eventually everything becomes clear. All the sub-plots that you may think are irrelevant connect to form a satisfying, overarching story.
You can also read our interview with the author here.
CFL Rating: 3 Stars