There is nothing magical about telepathy; it is merely one of those faculties our ancestors developed to a certain point before discarding it in favour of something more reliable, like answering machines,” observes Sonchai, the wisecracking cop from Thailand, as he strolls beside his new-found guru, a drug-peddling ex-lama in Kathmandu.
Superficially, The Godfather of Kathmandu is a thriller about international drug smuggling that takes hilarious potshots at Western hypocrisy, but then again, with John Burdett nothing is basically what it seems. In this concluding novel of his Bangkok quartet, the chemical world of narcotics is contrasted with the mind-altering experiences achievable through spiritual practice, as Sonchai falls under the spell of one witch after another. The drug lord, for example, enters Sonchai’s head through suggestion the same way a spyware virus effortlessly takes over a computer hooked on broadband. The philosophical discourse is pretty wild, questioning many rational assumptions we tend to make.
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Is there really something magical going on here? Detective novels operate on many unrealistic levels—they can be counterfactual or utterly slapstick or take off into the domain of science fiction—but one thing they’re usually not, is supernatural. As a matter of fact, the law stating that “all supernatural agencies are ruled out” was among the British mystery conventions established by Ronald Knox in 1929, in his preface to the Best Detective Stories anthology. Although most of the “rules” have since been broken, the one that remains hard to breach is the rule against “supernatural agencies”. Which, considering the fact that horror is the other big popular genre, may seem odd—shouldn’t a supernatural detective be the biggest best-seller ever?
Actually, the two genres cancel out each other. Detective fiction is part of an enlightenment tradition (while horror isn’t); the detective stands in for the rationalist. It is inconceivable for a crime to be committed via hocus-pocus for once the laws of nature (as established by scientists) are suspended, the investigator’s job becomes meaningless.
Consider The Hound of the Baskervilles, where a ghost-dog is haunting the English moors and driving its victims out of their minds. Like many of Sherlock Holmes’ adventures, it deals with the seemingly weird, but the sleuth finds a rational—if slightly far-fetched—explanation (it is an entirely different story that Doyle himself believed in spirits: His superstitious nature never afflicted his fictional detective).
Occult detective stories have been published now and then, but tend to remain in the margins. Aleister Crowley (who in the 1910s visited India and studied yoga to improve his mysticism) wrote a series featuring magician-cum-detective Iff—but apart from the stray Satanist, few study his adventures today.
Aficionados still relish bodybuilder/fantasy author William Hope Hodgson’s somewhat classic Ghost-Finder, Thomas Carnacki, who spooked early 20th century readers by sometimes busting the ghost and sometimes discovering a genuine haunting (usually in a ghostly mansion). Ever since then, Carnacki has been occasionally parodied, as well as made to do guest appearances in graphic novel series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. But otherwise occult investigators are more in fashion on film and TV, as in Ghost Busters and The X-Files.
Recently, matters were brought to a head in Tarquin Hall’s latest novel, The Case of the Man who Died Laughing, set in New Delhi. Vish Puri (“India’s most private investigator”) may be a touch superstitious but when a leading rationalist is struck down by a levitating, 20ft tall Kali at his laughing club morning session, Puri doesn’t think this is one of those miracles that gods perpetrate.
In a Sherlockian manner Puri goes about helping the helpless police crack the case that threatens national sanity, and explores how “miracles” are created—for example, two rickety hockey sticks may be enough to create a full-fledged illusion of levitation. The point is that there’s very little space for magic in crime fiction and most sleuths that engage with the supernatural are beacons of rational thinking, shining their torches into the murky recesses of the mind.
Except for sometimes. Or wasn’t that absolutely genuine telepathy, over a mobile phone, that the godfather of Kathmandu used on the Thai sleuth?
Zac O’Yeah is a Bangalore-based crime fiction writer. His last book was Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan.
Write to Zac at firstname.lastname@example.org