Vapour Trails: deep in the international underbelly

International crime fiction really can take you places, places you might never have considered visiting in person. In these times, when we’re physically anchored to a single geographic location, this can be utterly exhilarating. And Vapour Trails is an especially wild ride, an extraordinary rendition (pun entirely intended) of hardboiled noir superimposed on an unfamiliar culture, half a world away.

Ahmad and Ali are a right pair of wide boys, living life large in Islamabad’s illicit clubland. Despite what you might imagine about the religious restrictions of an Islamic republic, there’s absolutely no shortage of booze, sex and drugs in this story. Ahmad and Ali have trod that well-worn path of narcotic self-destruction, from being occasional party users to part-time dealers to being on the brink of the big (criminal) time. But suddenly their tweaking, snorting, gulping and shagging bubble bursts. There’s a dead body. A racketeer, piling on the pressure. And the deadly force of the national investigative agency who have these boys bang to rights and who won’t let them wiggle off the hook.

What follows is a mind-bending mix of Don Winslow’s Savages and the movie Trainspotting. The action is translocated to Pakistan and accompanied by all the narcotic-fuelled episodes of sex and self-loathing that you might find in Hunter S Thompson’s Rum Diary. This is a totally immersive experience, one which hurls you across continents to a sleazy metropolitan culture that’s radically different to the western norm – but which shares so many of our worst habits…

The author, Abdul Qadir, has crafted an outstanding and original form of the English language, every bit as idiosyncratic and absorbing as, say, Cormac McCarthy. Qadir warps and distorts anodyne, everyday expressions, forcing phrases and idiom into almost unnatural conformations that challenge the commonplace perception of the reader. Sometimes the effect can be a little overwhelming, but it aptly represents the drug-fuelled narcissistic chaos of his central characters.

He really knows how to convey the experience of thrashing – and crashing – a motorbike, too. The sequence where Ahmad confronts his inner demons while recklessly riding beyond the limits will ring true with anyone who has taken their extreme sport that one step too far. Qadir perfectly captures the nihilistic guilt-trip of the decadent; the physical fall from sacred grace.

On the down side, the text does get a touch self-indulgent in places where a more ruthless editor would have pared down some of the repetitive introspection to give the plot a little more pace and perspective. The grammar and language need tightening too, to correct some obvious mistakes and to give greater clarity to some of the author’s philosophical interludes.

However, these complaints are small compared to the powerful effect of this story and its implications. In telling a story of small-time criminals, Vapour Trails explores their spirituality and cultural identity – reflecting the empty, echoing shell that modern day existence can be. An exceptional novel; the sort you definitely don’t find every day.

8/10
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Vapour Trails by Abdul Qadir is available at Amazon

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Looking for more literary crime fiction?
Meet the Killing Sisters and their assassin adversary in a novel of powerful neo noir…

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