Monday, May 6, 2013

Kemal Kayankaya—Frankfurt’s Wise-Cracking Turkish-German Detective

By Heidi Noroozy

In the 1960s, with economic recovery from the devastation of World War II well underway, West Germany found itself with a booming economy and a shortage of labor for its growing manufacturing, construction, and mining industries. A guest worker treaty with Turkey solved the problem, and soon young Turks were filling the labor gap. The arrangement was meant to be temporary, at least initially, with each guest worker returning to Turkey after two years. This policy had advantages for both nations: Germany gained a much-needed workforce without having to integrate a distinctly alien cultural and religious minority into its society. Turkey would be guaranteed a generation of highly skilled workers when its citizens returned home—a great boon to its own economy.

But things didn’t turn out that way. Many Turks chose to remain in Germany and raise families, even if they remained on the fringes of society. Because these workers were classified as “migrants” and not “immigrants,” and since their children born on German soil did not automatically receive German citizenship, the country became home to an entire generation (or two) of residents who were neither entirely German nor fully Turkish. It is not a situation conducive to intercultural harmony.

Against this historical background, German crime novelist Jakob Arjouni has created one of the most memorable characters in the mystery genre. Private Investigator Kemal Kayankaya is the son of Turkish migrant workers and was orphaned at a young age. Adopted by a German couple, he grew up in Frankfurt, speaks flawless German with a Hessian accent and not a word of Turkish. He’s an avid fan of the Gladbach soccer club, and he eats pickled herring with his breakfast coffee, yet none of these German attributes save him from relentless prejudice and stereotyping. Faced with his dark skin and Turkish features, people constantly mistake him for the garbage collector, street vendor, and even undocumented immigrant. Never mind that, unlike most of his Turkish-German compatriots, he’s in possession of a rare treasure: a German passport.

In a series of five hardboiled detective novels published over the course of nearly 30 years (from 1985 to 2012), Arjouni holds up a mirror to German society. Like the best heroes of the genre, Kayankaya is a relentless champion of the downtrodden and dispossessed. He’s fearless and dogged, a hard-drinking, chain-smoking lone wolf with his own set of moral standards. However, Kayankaya’s ethnicity and the intercultural battles he faces add a whole new subtext to the classic PI tale.

His cases take him through the seediest parts of Frankfurt: dark alleys, brothels, and strip clubs with their pimps, prostitutes, gangsters, corrupt cops, and government officials on the take. The novels explore themes of social marginalization, racism, and unequal distribution of justice, sometimes set against the backdrop of larger historical events, such as the breakup of Yugoslavia. Other themes are xenophobia and police corruption (Happy Birthday, Türke!/Happy Birthday, Turk!), eco-terrorism and political culpability (Mehr Bier/More Beer), immigration fraud and the illegal sex trade (Ein Man, Ein Mord/One Man, One Murder, which won the 1992 German Crime Fiction Prize), racketeering and the lingering effects of the brutal Balkan wars (Kismet), and religious intolerance (Bruder Kemal/Brother Kemal).

Kayankaya’s tough-guy image is tempered by his vulnerability. His Achilles heel is his ethnicity, and even his German citizenship doesn’t offer much security when corrupt officials rob him of his ID and toss him in a cell with a group of illegals slated for deportation. In violent confrontations with the bad guys, he often ends up in worse shape that his opponents, but when it comes to battling the daily humiliation of prejudice, no one is a match for his acerbic and often cynical wit. His great talent is to twist hurtful attitudes and toss them back at an adversary in a way that makes the other person look like a fool. Take this exchange in a scene from Ein Man, Ein Mord, where the detective tries to enlist the help of an immigration official to find the missing Thai woman he’s been hired to locate. The official won’t be deterred from her mistaken assumption that Citizen Kayankaya has come to renew his residency permit. She asks him his name. 
“Kemal Kayankaya.”


“Pretty good. But I do have some trouble with those foreign words.”

With the series spanning several decades, Arjouni allows his protagonist to age in real time. The first book, Happy Birthday, Türke (1985), opens on Kayankaya’s 26th birthday, which he celebrates alone in his office until a client shows up and he shares a piece of cake with her. In 2012’s Bruder Kemal, Kayankaya is 53 and his life has become a great deal more stable. He’s in a steady relationship, has cut way back on his drinking, and even has his own website. Kayankaya’s transformation reflects changes in Germany’s attitude toward its Turkish community. When he took on his first case in the mid-1980s, a Turkish-born German citizen was almost unheard of. Today, according to one statistic, nearly two-thirds of German Turks hold German passports, thanks to immigration reforms in recent years. But just as they do in real life, prejudices die hard in Kayakaya’s fictional world, and the detective, who claims to have never seen the inside of a mosque, finds himself mistaken for an Islamic terrorist.

Jakob Arjouni’s cross-cultural detective series is destined to remain at 5 books. Sadly, the 48-year-old author died earlier this year after losing a battle with pancreatic cancer. Although I read the series in the original German, the first four books are available in English, and the translation of Bruder Kemal is slated for U.S. publication in September 2013. I am pleased to see these stories reach an international audience, for while Arjouni intended to hold up a mirror to his native Germany, the themes he explores are universal problems that plague societies around the world, and many of us may see our own faces reflected in Kemal Kayankaya’s Turkish eyes.


  1. Sounds like a fascinating series, Heidi. Wonder why I'd never heard of it before. Will definitely check it out.

  2. I meant to ask. I know it's a Turkish name so you may not know but perhaps the author explains it in one of his books: the name Arjouni, any idea what it means?

    1. Supriya, all I know about the name is that it is a pen name (he was born Jakob Michelsen), and that it's Moroccan not Turkish (unless it's both). It's the name of his first wife, who was from Morocco. I think you'll like the series. The stories are dark and gritty but with a lot of light moments, too. I actually laughed out loud in places.