Pulp fiction purists will probably grimace if I say this, but a good action thriller is a work of art. Dan Brown’s story in The Da Vinci Code, for instance, may have been complete garbage, but his storytelling skills were irreproachable. It’s a much-coveted talent and, alas, it’s something you either have or you don’t.
Meghnad Desai, unfortunately, doesn’t.
That’s a pity because almost everything else is in place: a sprawling cast of characters, a narrative that jumps from Kuala Lumpur to Kansas, European politics, dollops of sex, including straight, gay and incestuous, murder plots (okay, LOTS of murder plots, all targeting the same person!)...the whole laundry list of best-seller ingredients woven into two days in the life of the British prime minister. All Dead on Time needed was a Jeffrey Archer—Desai’s shadow, if one may put it that way, from the Tory ranks—to put them together.
In his absence, we have to be content with shadow-play of another kind: Politicians and media magnates who closely resemble real-life figures (a Labour PM with a Roman Catholic wife; an ageing newspaper proprietor with a nubile Asian companion), sex scandals involving public faces, even a helicopter with VIP passengers that explodes in mid-air.
Big deal, you’d say. Page-turners have always depended on recognizable figures and incidents, depending on prurient curiosity bred by the familiarity factor. Logical absurdities don’t matter in the successful airport novel because you love the writer enough to suspend disbelief: You champion the protagonist as you read breathlessly to see how he turns out.
Dead on Time: HarperCollins India, 238 pages, Rs399.
The problem with Dead on Time, though, is that Desai doesn’t spend enough time building up the one character-hook that you unquestioningly invest your sympathies in. Everyone in the vast cast is pegged with a backstory and, together, they create an excellent pastiche of Britain’s current socio-economic scenario. However, they also dilute the narrative flow, an absolute no-no in the thriller genre, and when it all blows up in the end, you’re left wondering why you were subjected to the hard-luck story of the miner’s daughter.
Desai has been quoted as saying that he wrote the book “for the fun of it”, but it’s precisely this element that’s missing from the novel. Even the sex is tepid, as if some inner censor has made him hold back on the more-than-perfunctory details. The flat writing, stilted dialogues and sloppy editing—none of which would matter in a real thriller—make matters worse.
At fault as much is Desai’s pedantic style. Towards the middle of the book, Deirdre, a minor character, sums up Roger, another minor character, thus: “Roger was always so keen to educate her. Ask a question and you got a lecture…” Substitute Roger with Desai—a well-regarded economist, author of several learned books and a Bollywood biography—and you’d be hard put to think of a better conclusion to a review. This one may just be dead before time.
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