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by Barbara Nadel
Quercus, July 2012
320 pages
18.99 GBP
ISBN: 0857387731

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Maria Peters, recently widowed, is attempting to revive her once-thriving career as a stand-up comedian. Suspecting she is being watched, she seeks the help of Lee Arnold, an ex-copper who runs a detective agency. Lee has recruited Mumtaz Hakim, a psychology graduate, who is keen to get involved with the case. Maria is well-off and can afford round-the-clock protection, but as Lee and Mumtaz learn more about the case they realise it is not straightforward.

Maria's act was always controversial and generated comment, but she is now unable to sustain a performance for reasons unclear, and seems to have problems that she is unwilling to divulge. She has also become involved with a local evangelist sect and their intervention does not seem entirely beneficial. Lee and Mumtaz could do with the money earned from Maria's protection, but whether she will allow them to help her is another matter.

The setting of A PRIVATE BUSINESS is the area around the Olympic Park, very topical at the moment. The characters are all local, but London has always been a cultural melting pot as this book shows. Maria was married to Leonard Blatt, a local landlord of Jewish background. Mumtaz is of Pakistani origin, but is wary of her traditional culture after her parentally-approved spouse turned out to be a villain. His murder came as a relief, and she is happy to take on the responsibility of Shazia, her husband's teenage daughter by a previous marriage, but financial problems are a concern as are her mother's attempts to marry her off to unsuitable men. Money is also tight for Lee, who is separated and has just his mynah bird for company. Lee's other problem is his brother, a drunkard like his father.

These characters and many others feel like realistic portraits: Barbara Nadel does not shy from detailing the complexity of the lives depicted. This does not, however, always make for easy reading, even for the sympathetic subjects of her study, and there are some pretty unpleasant people depicted as the story rolls out. As for Maria, there is a pretty big hint about her internal conflicts early in the book and her agonising takes up lengthy passages, becoming increasingly difficult to read.

A PRIVATE BUSINESS will appeal to those who like gritty realism and a hard glimpse into the nasty truths behind apparently respectable front doors. Those who prefer to see good triumphant and perpetrators of criminal activity meeting with just deserts by the final page will be less happy. But Lee and Mumtaz do make an interesting combination, and will no doubt be returning for future cases.

Chris Roberts is a retired manager of shopping centres in Hong Kong, and now lives in Bristol, primarily reading.

Reviewed by Chris Roberts, July 2012

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