September 17, 2017


Illustration by Shaikh Sarfaraz Ahmed
Illustration by Shaikh Sarfaraz Ahmed

An unnamed defendant stands accused of murder. Just before the closing speeches, he sacks his lawyer and decides to give his own defence speech. This young man is accused of killing a gang member named Jamil. Based on incriminating forensic evidence, this is a simple open-and-shut case that marks him as the culprit. The defendant talks us through the eight pieces of evidence that implicate him, explaining how and why those facts don’t tell the whole story. The jury — and by extension we, the readers — are to decide whether he is guilty or not.

This is the unique and gripping premise of You Don’t Know Me, debut novel of British-Pakistani writer and criminal barrister Imran Mahmood. Our narrator is a young black man from a south London estate; a character inspired by the writer’s extensive experience of defending inner-city clients. When I ask Mahmood what motivated him to write this particular story, he says, “I wanted to explore the challenges faced by those accused of crime. I wanted to know how communication is affected when the bridges between lawyers and defendants, and lawyers and juries are taken away. There’s a kind of tacit prejudice towards accused people and that’s magnified when it meets people from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. I wanted to know what a reader put in the jury box would do to confront these obstacles and solve the problems. How would he or she translate the defendant’s story when told unvarnished and without the filter of a third party.”

For a debut, the premise is bold, a risk that pays off, and wades into uncharted waters in the realm of legal thrillers. Mahmood has over 20 years of experience as a barrister in legal aid cases involving crimes such as murder and other violent charges. Hence, a courtroom drama was comfortably in his wheelhouse not only as a genre, but also how in part his profession requires the crafting of a convincing narrative. Did experience as a barrister make it easier to come up with a taut and compelling storyline with little to no loopholes? “I think it did,” he replies. “There’s no substitute for direct experience. Research can only get one so far, but ultimately the difference between plausibility and implausibility can be that tiny speck of detail that can only come from familiarity with the world I am describing.”

An inventive crime thriller that blurs the line between legality and moral question

It is also refreshing to see a writer with Pakistani origins writing unconventional genre fiction rather than the hackneyed stories regurgitating tired tropes about fundamentalism, immigration and the war on terror. Was that a deliberate decision? “In as much as I didn’t want to write that story, it was conscious.” Mahmood says. “But the story here is in a different dimension. Once I chose and set the arena it was as unlikely to be talking about ISIS as it would be to talk about Trump’s America.”

The narrative highlights how young, disadvantaged men from minority backgrounds get caught up in the justice system. Many a times they are not tried by people like them and psychosocial factors such as racial profiling and discrimination stack the odds against them. So is the justice system inherently rigged against BAME individuals? “I think the justice system is fair or at least as fair as it can workably be made. What rigs the system against the BAME classes is in fact wider than the criminal justice system. It is education. It is access to opportunity. It is the absence of social equality.”

The plot of the book aims to subvert stereotypes with a black narrator who vehemently resists gang culture. Later, he becomes embroiled in a messy situation with a notorious gang and has to take extreme steps to ensure his and his loved ones’ safety. The evidence gathered by the prosecution is damning, so the narrator understands why the jury might have reservations believing his version of the story. At the same time, he pulls no punches and maintains that the kid was shot because he dealt drugs. He tells the jury: “You already know this. You just don’t care that much because it’s not on your door.” That observation in itself is poignant because we all know drug dealers die. Gangsters die. They are already set upon a deadly path so it doesn’t surprise any of us when the inevitable eventually happens. The defendant gives us the vital ‘why’ of that story. This story does not glorify gangs, but humanises their members by shedding light on the psychosocial elements that sustain this prevailing inimical culture.

Coming from impoverished backgrounds, becoming a hoodlum allows individuals the chance to wield a modicum of power. They yearn to have some influence after finding themselves helpless and neglected in their homes and the society at large. Gangs have a strong pull because they provide fierce camaraderie — something they crave. As the defendant notes at one point: “It’s not like they sit there thinking these things through. Nobody does. This is just their reality, like your reality is that it’s okay to waste your life working till you’re old and then to retire just in time to die. It’s all stupidness. It’s just that when you’re in it, you can’t see it.”

In many situations, becoming part of this subculture is the only way out of adversity, a glimmer of hope of a life different than their present one. Mahmood explores this appeal of gang culture and in doing so, presents us with a credible case of their inevitability. “The protagonist is not, in fact, involved in either drugs or gangs. I made a very careful and deliberate decision that he should not be,” says Mahmood. “So I wasn’t at all hesitant. I was glad to be able to resist the stereotype. The whole book is really an effort to resist that and to open the reader up to a possibility of intelligence behind the eyes of those accused of crime and those whom society is often, for other reasons, quick to dismiss.”

The predicament that jurors deal with, and the thin line between justice and morality are the main takeaways in this book. “I want readers to feel the dilemma jurors face when deciding guilt. I want them to see that how they view truth and lie is a function of something as flimsy as belief. And I want them to take away a hopefully memorable story told in a unique way.” Whether our protagonist should go scot-free or be convicted is open to question. However, the jury is in when it comes to this eye-opening debut — a compelling and socially conscious novel that pushes the envelope of crime fiction.

The reviewer is a Karachi-based book critic

You Don’t Know Me
By Imran Mahmood
Michael Joseph, UK
ISBN:  978-0718184254

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 17th, 2017