Launching a new detective agency, especially if you don’t have much of a track record as a private investigator, isn’t easy, finds Reema Ray, foremost infidelity expert of Kolkata. Truth be told, she isn’t much of an infidelity expert either, except that her folks are estranged and she has lost a boyfriend, the luscious Amit, to a former college classmate.
Ray struggles to keep her semi-defunct agency afloat. Steele Securities is named after the character Remington Steele (played by Pierce Brosnan in the long-running 1980s TV series of the same name). She solves a case a month but to make ends meet, she also freelances as a food critic for a trendy lifestyle magazine. But out of the blue, two mysteries land on her plate.
A supplier of imported gourmet ingredients (and a somewhat slimy socialite), whom she has recently interviewed, dies of something that appears to be food poisoning. But before the autopsy can be made the body is cremated by his family. Foul play is suspected and Ray is asked to look into it.
At exactly the same time, the wife of her college sweetheart, Amit, is abducted against a Rs.2 crore ransom, and although Ray doesn’t particularly like the thought of poking her nose into his troublesome life, she can’t but stand by her ex when the rest of the world suspects him of having done away with the wife.
Big mess follows. Welcome to the world of The Masala Murder, a debut novel by former Telegraph editor Madhumita Bhattacharyya, which mixes the chicklit genre with cosy mystery.
Meanwhile, in another part of India, the sexy Shimla cop Niki Marwah has a lot on her hands, what with her family being insistent on her marrying as quickly as possible, an inbound foreign political VIP whose security is her responsibility, and an outbound publishing CEO—as in the man has been thrown to his death from a cable-car at a plush spa resort in the Himalayas.
Drop Dead by Swati Kaushal is the author’s third novel, but the first in a series about the “tough and trendy” Niki. The next book Sweet Cyanide will soon be out, and is set in the world of reality cooking shows. The author’s experience from publishing makes this a delightful read as various publishing executives are suspected, investigated and their skeletons rattled out of their respective hotel room cupboards, exposing secrets, ranging from adultery to drug abuse and homosexuality.
Meanwhile down south, in Bangalore, the middle-aged police inspector Borei Gowda, grass widower with sagging belly and a rum habit, is investigating possible serial murder cases that haunt the grubby by-lanes of Shivajinagar: a noisy, crowded market area, with pushcarts doling out food and beverage late into the night, and lots of shady stuff going on in its alleys, movie halls and bars. What makes Gowda suspect that he’s up against a homicidal maniac is that all the victims have been strangulated with a string coated in glass particles, thus cutting their throats and garrotting them at once.
But how on earth do the pieces of the puzzle fit? A dead Shivajinagar junkie, a lost but valuable pearl earring similar to one in a Raja Ravi Varma painting, an SUV with a Tamil Nadu number-plate, the obvious suspect already behind bars—all linked by the cut-throat garrotte. Read Cut Like Wound by Anita Nair to find out.
"Almost any city one can think of would be a top-class setting for gritty gumshoes and deadpan detectives. And now here’s the proverbial deluge—Bangalore, Kolkata and Shimla"
Three writers, three new detectives in the game, and three fictional murder investigations. Sometimes one gets what one asks for. Those of you who are regular readers of this column may have noticed that I constantly harp about the lack of serious Indian pulp crime fiction (at least in English), and wonder why so few writers use the splendid backdrops that Indian cities provide: Almost any city one can think of would be a top-class setting for gritty gumshoes and deadpan detectives.
And now here’s the proverbial deluge—Bangalore, Kolkata and Shimla have all provided riveting crime scenes in this slew of recent pulp. It isn’t as if there have been no detective novels with Indian settings before these three (think of Satyajit Ray’s Feluda novellas, and Kalpish Ratna’s Lalli mysteries, to name just two), but never before have we had so many flavours of cold-blooded localized mystery fiction.
Even more interesting is that each book described above promises to be the start of a series, so finally Agatha Christie is getting serious competition for shelf space in our bookshops. In a general sense, all three compare favourably to Dame Agatha—in their contemporary and very Indian milieus, plots and casts, as well as in the way the cases are wrapped up.
However, at times, these writers under review swerve too far into chick lit-inspired scenes, to do with extended family gossip and descriptions of humdrum, day-to-day things such as clothes-shopping and the war against calories. The novels could have gained by sticking more firmly to their respective plot-lines. It is of course interesting to weave in details of cultural anthropology into detective novels—but the operative word here is “weave”, that is, integrate instead of ladle on. But perhaps now that these initial books have been published, the chief characters have been introduced, and all the teething troubles are over, the next instalment of each series will move more briskly forward.
That minor failure apart, I must applaud all three for their hard work in creating narratives full of red herrings and deceptive characters, and mysteries within mysteries. Being an experienced novelist, it is perhaps not surprising that Anita Nair’s is the most hard-boiled of the three: Here we have morbidly fascinating forensic discussions on the various murderous uses that golf equipment can be put to, for example. The author serves her murders up raw, instead of glossing over the blood, pain and death.
Incidentally, the serial novel presents appealing prospects, both from a commercial point of view (for writers and publishers) as well as from a reader’s perspective, for its storytelling potential. For this latter reason alone it’ll be worth checking out the upcoming sequels to these novels.
A good serial protagonist grows along with the series and a good writer won’t hold her (or his) characters back: Will Niki Marwah get married and go the family way, or keep hunting for the hunk of her dreams? Will Reema Ray become a real Sherlock or go on struggling with food- reviewing and the occasional crime? Will Borei Gowda get his life together—or is his family breaking apart irretrievably?
These are the overarching questions, while the mysteries keep up the reading pace. As I wait for more, the rest of you, who have sometimes thought of writing a pulp thriller (come on, I know you’re all guilty as charged), kindly fire up your laptops. It doesn’t matter whether they’re set in Nagercoil, Amritsar or Cuttack. Just write down your criminal nightmares and with some luck there will be bumpy nights ahead.
Zac O’Yeah’s new novel, Mr Majestic, will be out later this month.