One of my highly unscientific pet theories is that popular crime fiction in every country mirrors the collective psyche of its population. To put it in another way, a popular crime writer’s stories reflect exactly what disturbs people, for readers have a natural tendency to gravitate towards books that address issues that bother them. This means that in ideal circumstances crime novels can be psychotherapeutically helpful and perhaps lower the mental healthcare budget. If any psychoanalyst out there has a better theory, you’re welcome to email your suggestions to this newspaper.
Let’s look at specific cases. For instance, Agatha Christie’s popularity mirrored, in my view, the feeling of loss the British experienced when their empire crumbled. Her novels are essentially about preserving a conservative idyll of rural manors and country chaplains in a world with no or little manoeuvring space for the lower classes (except in cases where the butler turns out to be the killer). Life in that bucolic world can be disturbed by a heinous murder but, in the end, order prevails.
Captured: Our engagement with terrorism spills over into the books we read.
American noir is, on the other hand, a big city phenomenon: The pulp crime stories by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and their ilk mirrored the dark side of urbanization, depicting crimes that were made possible by the anonymity of metropolises where everything and everybody was for sale.
Also read | Zac O’Yeah’s earlier column
The currently popular Swedish—and Scandinavian— crime fiction often features both male and female cops who eat too much junk food, get drunk way too often, are divorced and have troubled relationships with their own children and/or parents. You don’t need a degree in psychology to figure out what that means in terms of the problems that a modern welfare state is facing.
In India, I’ve noticed that there’s one subgenre of crime fiction that’s doing better than others—namely the terrorist thriller. We are, of course, constantly reminded of this threat walking through metal detectors at railway stations, shopping malls and cinemas, or facing elaborate identity and address proof checks in order to acquire a prepaid SIM card.
Reading fictional accounts of terrorism then, it would seem, helps us process these stress factors that lurk in the backgrounds of our lives and keep us from turning paranoid.
Consider Jimmy the Terrorist by Omair Ahmad, a story of a boy branded as a terrorist after he knifed a police inspector in a small north Indian town. As we go deeper into the narrative, it turns out that the boy himself is a stray victim of communalist tendencies that conspire to make an otherwise gentle and sensible person commit one random criminal act.
A suitable follow-up read might be C.P. Surendran’s Lost and Found, a tragicomic story that weaves together the lives of a number of people in Mumbai during those dark days that we remember as 26/11. Here, one of the terrorists loses his way and, separated from the flock, ends up taking hostages that represent a microcosm of the metropolis: a middle-aged woman who runs a smutty website, a sleazy tabloid journalist (who has been tied up by the aforementioned woman in a bathtub), a Hindu fundamentalist rickshaw driver, and a beggar-slash-kebab cook-slash-Bollywood wannabe. This somewhat unlikely menagerie turns out, in a horrific plot twist, to be closely related and the reader gets to know a seriously depraved and imploding family.
Another recent novel that touches on the spiral of vengeance that terrorism and counterterrorism are part of, is It Can’t Be You by Prem Rao; in it an army colonel finds that his years in a special unit fighting militants in the Kashmir valley come to haunt him after retirement.
Moving to the sphere of tautly scripted pulp, plots are less inclined towards understanding the mindset of those who take to terrorism, but they do shed light on the complex logistics of preventing terror attacks. Just last year, Mukul Deva published the third instalment about the valiant men of Force 22, Blowback, in which the top secret counterterrorism squad foils yet another attempt to destabilize the country. Undercover operative Iqbal infiltrates a terrorist cell that recruits cannon fodder for bomb attacks and there are some highly memorable shoot-outs that spice up the drama. If you’re hooked by the Lashkar series, the last book in the quartet is being published this year: Tanzeem, in which Iqbal goes for the final arm-wrestle with the foreign hand.
A 15-year-old classic in the same genre, The Night of the Krait by Shashi Warrier, was recently reissued. It shows that our concerns about terrorism have remained largely the same. As usual the foreign hand plays the puppeteer, as Special Operations Force’s Colonel Menon hunts “The Krait”, an evil mastermind, in a series of steroid-brimming adventures that take us through Indian metros. Menon comes across as a macho who is occasionally troubled by his brutal job. During one of his soft moments with his love interest Sandhya, he has to justify the use of violence and torture in the combat against terrorists, and as he does so he begins to turn pessimistic. It becomes one of the most intense scenes in the book, because Col. Menon suddenly just wants to get back to his army quarters where he can watch the cricket match in peace which, in some way, appears to be easier than having a face-to-face discussion about the psychology of violence.
Zac O’Yeah is the author of Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan.
Write to Zac at email@example.com