Shahjahanabad—Old Delhi, to us laypeople—seems an unlikely setting for a detective novel. Especially if it takes place in 1656, way before modern forensics and scientific police work made crime fiction into what it is. But just before Diwali I found myself at the launch of Madhulika Liddle’s The Englishman’s Cameo, where the author spoke about her reasons for writing a book in the “historical mystery” genre, and how she had done the plotting and planning during heritage walks.
Spy city:Kolkata’s Park Street, the setting for some Feluda stories. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint
The fictional crime-solving nobleman Muzaffar Jang owes, according to Liddle, “his existence largely to the places and stories I discovered as I meandered along on those many walks”. With poisoned paan and the whole shebang, she then conjures up a splendid cityscape in which the reader encounters bustling bazaars with their qahwa khanas (coffee houses) that herald the coming of a new-fangled beverage: One spots the occasional gawky youngster “walking swiftly but sure-footedly along the street, carrying a small earthenware cup full of what was presumably coffee”.
What makes The Englishman’s Cameo attractive is these images of life in Shahjahanabad and although this is Liddle’s debut novel, she has spent the last couple of years writing shorter Muzaffar Jang adventures to be published as a story collection soon.
There and then, while at the book launch, it occurred to me that Indian cities provide rather remarkable backdrops for mystery novels. My favourite Feluda adventure is The Secret of the Cemetery (a novella originally published in 1977 as Gorosthaney Sabdhan); you may recall that Satyajit Ray got the inspiration from one of Kolkata’s oldest cemeteries, the spooky one down Park Street. By the way, Park Street used to be called Burial Ground Street, a name which for obvious reasons had to be changed when the street later turned into an entertainment drag with restaurants, bars and cabarets.
Recently, I rediscovered this Ray novella in a comic book version, Beware in the Graveyard, by illustrator Tapas Guha (www.tapasguha.com) in which Kolkata’s splendid milieus come alive once again.
But an even grander setting must be Mumbai, for in the last couple of years, some truly heavy crime novels have been written about the “maximum city”: Vikram Chandra’s Sacred Games clocks in at 900 pages and Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram is a few ounces heavier at 936 pages. In their hard-cover editions, both can be used as murder weapons.
Slimmer and much more hard-boiled are three striking crime novels written by Ashok Banker many years ago. I still remember reading The Iron Bra, a blood-soaked story of a female investigator, Sheila Ray, whose finger rests lightly on the trigger as she defends her family’s reputation and takes on gangsters in a particularly unforgettable shootout. The growing city’s construction sites were a crucial component in the tight plot. Tragically, my own copy is long lost and second-hand copies cost $129 (approx. Rs6,000) plus shipping on an online bookshop, so it looks like it’s high time to have this gem of a crime novel reissued in an omnibus edition along with Banker’s Ten Dead Admen and Murder & Champagne (all three originally published in 1993).
So Mumbai has had its share of writers who have painted the city as black as noir gets, but as regards other cities, I have run out of examples. In most Indian detective novels I can think of, cities remain a hazy background contour.
Abroad, however, there’s no dearth of city-centric action—from the grimness of Los Angeles as described by James Ellroy to the seediness of Stockholm in Sjöwall-Wahlöö’s cop novels. One just has to think of any of the world’s metropolises and it’ll have a bookshop worth of crime to its name.
In case I’m missing something here, I’d be grateful to hear from readers who can think of crime novels where any Indian city shapes the plot in a significant way. Are there perhaps books that haven’t come out in English—Malayalam murder mysteries that make use of Fort Cochin’s alleys and waterways? Shelves of Punjabi penny dreadfuls that take advantage of Chandigarh’s futuristic town plan? A Telugu thriller where the twin cities Hyderabad-Secunderabad serve up cybercrime alongside some deadly biryani (as in, arsenic-laced)? Please post your comments and share your knowledge.
Zac O’Yeah is a Bangalore-based author of crime fiction. Write to him at email@example.com