The 13th year of this millennium is over and, despite its somewhat inauspicious number, it is bound to be remembered as a vintage year of Indian thrillers and crime fiction. Some of the best-ever debut detective novels appeared in 2013 and Penguin Books India even launched a special noir imprint with a Bollywood flavour—Blue Salt.
I’m not sure what exactly the salty name is meant to imply, but it does bring to mind the classic 1980s Blue Murder imprint of Simon & Schuster, which was dedicated to reprinting the choicest American noir pulp. At the helm of Penguin’s new imprint is veteran writer S. Hussain Zaidi, of Mafia Queens of Mumbai fame, who finds the authors and sources their manuscripts in order to, as he says in the press note, “create an imprint that would reflect the best of both crime writing and Bollywood”. Judging from the first book out, the wonderfully named Ghalib Danger by Neeraj Pandey, this is a series worth following.
The story of Kamran Khan—the Bihari boy who comes to town and becomes a feared don under the moniker “Ghalib Danger”—is racy, hardboiled and very stylishly written. Danger Bhai has a Ghalib couplet for every occasion and is prone to fall in love, typically with the wrong woman. It doesn’t matter so much if there are melodramatic clichés aplenty, because the right cliché at the right time may actually make for a whole lot of fun. Think Quentin Tarantino and you’ll know what I mean.
Earlier in the year the first noir thriller from India’s North-East, The Girl From Nongrim Hills by Ankush Saikia, brought us to new, exciting places. The strength of this particular novel really is its setting, the small hill town of Shillong. The protagonist Donbok, nicknamed Bok, is a guitarist who plays at wedding parties, but when his pathetic brother gets involved in a shady arms deal, losing Rs.50 lakh of gangster money, the siblings soon find themselves ear-deep in a bad, bad mess.
The grandmaster of the Indian military thriller Mukul Deva, who has been compared to Tom Clancy, Robert Ludlum and Frederick Forsyth, came out with his best one so far proving that the comparisons may well be justified. The Dust Will Never Settle is again a terrorist conspiracy, as Deva’s stories are wont to be. However, this time the tragedy is complicated by the protagonist and antagonist being father and daughter, as Delhi top cop Ravinder Singh Gill begins to worry that his little Ruby is plotting a dastardly deed in the national capital. Although he wants so badly to trust her, his suspicions just keep growing, and soon Ravinder is torn between his paternal instincts and the need to save the nation. Needless to say, this makes for an unputdownable read.
Some of the best debut novels came early in 2013—such as Behind the Silicon Mask by Eshwar Sundaresan. A thriller set among Indian techies being sent out from Bengaluru to work onsite in the US one stormy winter, the story gets bone-chilling as a psycho stalker begins killing them one by one. While the techies race against the clock to finish their work so that they can return safely to India, the police struggle to catch the serial killer psychopath before any more have to die. Another fine debut was The Price You Pay by Somnath Batabyal which is set in the somewhat shady world of crime reporters in Delhi, and tells the story of rookie journo Abhishek who gets uncomfortably close to the criminals he’s supposed to keep an eye on.
The year also saw the rediscovery of a long-forgotten gem. The Tower of Silence by Phiroshaw Jamsetjee Chaiwala (pen name: P.J. Chevalier) was originally released in a limited edition in 1928. While researching at the British Library in London, historian Gyan Prakash stumbled upon a copy of it with the final chapters missing. After lots of enquiries, he managed to find the lost pages in a Mumbai library, and then get it reprinted. This peculiar and remarkable detective novel pits the British super sleuth Sexton Blake against the Parsi vigilante Beram, who is seeking revenge after a pilot has committed the great blasphemy of clicking aerial photographs of a sacred Zoroastrian burial place.
If this is the onset of a new trend, then 2014 should be an exciting year for readers. Indeed, Hachette India will be launching an electrifying thriller debut—which I’ve had the opportunity to read in advance—The Sad Demise of Manpreet Singh by Delhi-based writer Patrick Bryson, who takes us on a guided tour of the murky world of visa frauds, a topic that will surely interest many readers. Also, hopefully, the remaining instalments of Ashok Banker’s Kali Rising Quartet should come in print, completing the series that started with Blood Red Sari, while the aforementioned Blue Salt imprint is expected to bring out at least four more titles during the year.
Zac O’Yeah is the author of Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan and Mr Majestic: The Tout of Bengaluru.