I get withdrawal pangs when I finish reading a good whodunnit. Shutting the book on the back cover is like seeing off a friend who you are not likely to see for a couple of years. And you don’t get to see a new story from a good gumshoe for that long anyway. Morse, Kurt Wallander, Martin Beck, John Rebus, V.I. Warshawski, they rarely resurface as quickly as you want them to.
Now joining my list of dearly loved PIs is Lalli (known as LR, Last Resort, to Mumbai Police). It is her second appearance in Kalpana Swaminathan’s crime series, The Gardener’s Song. I missed the first Lalli book (I simply can’t seem to find it on bookshelves) but I’ve fallen headlong for her anyway. She is a 63-year-old stylish and enigmatic retired police officer.
Lalli is in turns sharp, compassionate, sociable and withdrawn. She is now dazzling in a Kalakshetra sari, now kicking butt in trousers. And, if it helps her case, she is not beyond turning into a woolly-headed dispenser of squash and chaklis to susceptible neighbours.
Lalli works with her niece, the writer of the book and compiler of Lulu’s Logbook. She is Watson to Lalli’s Holmes. Slow on the uptake, but priceless because she manages to ask simple questions that give Lalli her first lead.
Here is a great crime book. Not the dark crime fiction that comes out of Europe or the gut-churning forensic science stuff. This is clean, classic English crime: think Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, even Alexander McCall Smith.
There is a crime, nothing warped, just plain old poison, there are lots of red herrings, a circle of suspects, tantalizing hints from the detective, the last murder attempt, the arrest, and the final story told to the group gathered in a circle.
The setting of the murder is cheerfully familiar: A genteel building society called Utkrusha in the middle-class Mumbai suburb of Vile Parle (East). Here lives Lalli with her niece and a whole bunch of respectable neighbours, each of whom has a dark secret to shield.
The Body is Mr Rao, the building’s nosy parker, who can’t seem to mind his own business (and is never addressed without the courtesy title). He is found dead in a lift while on his morning trip to the milk booth. Here lies the charm of Swaminathan’s book. The familiar nuggets of life in a middle-class Mumbai “building”: intrusive, comforting, corrosive as well as gracious.
Practically everyone in the building has some secret to obsess over and Mr Rao is more than keen to prise it out of them. So, when Mr Rao is found dead, almost everyone is a murder suspect. How Lalli and her police pal Savio crack the case and pare through a bewildering number of leads makes for unputdownable reading.
I’ve always wondered why we can’t seem to generate good crime writing in English. We have con men, dacoits, assassins, bandits, murderers... now we even have serial killers. We have blinding rain, foggy winters. We have deserted farmhouses, grimy urban galis and deserted warehouses. But good home-grown mysteries and thrillers in English? Come to think of it, we now have great literary entrepreneurship. We have managed to dabble in chick lit, SFF and even graphic novels. But there seems to be a great reluctance to venture into crime.
Bengal has created some memorable sleuths such as Feluda, Byomkesh Bakshi and, for children, Tenida and gang. And I have in my childhood read some tuppenny Hindi upanyas (novel) starring some inspector. There was ‘Inispector’ Eagle on Vividh Bharati’s 9.30pm sponsored slot and a whole lot of very watchable mystery movies in Hindi from the 1950s. H.R.F. Keating created Inspector Ghote for us.
But Swaminathan gives us cause for cheer, particularly because the setting is so familiar. I love the noir stuff coming out of Sweden, but it is hard to connect with the desolate landscape and the reserve of its people.
The Gardener’s Song is a great Mumbai book. The leafy bylanes of Juhu, the crumbling buildings of Princess Street, the eccentricities of Vile Parle suburbanites, and the cauldron of communities, each of them self-contained, yet woven into the fabric of the big city.
Also pick this book for the humour. There is Mr Rao’s constipation, delicately termed “Control”. And the cheap bars of washing soap patronized by the buildingwalas. The author weaves it all in with a lot of love.