One of the best things about Bangalore’s cantonment is how it has become a treasure trove for bibliophiles. With a little detective work in the bookshops here, one can build oneself a respectable and wide-ranging crime fiction library.
Thankfully, several venerable old bookshops have survived in this era of Internet book-shopping, even if others, like the legendary Premier, my main supplier for many years, shut shop some time ago. But for a nostalgic moment, you can still browse best-selling thrillers at the Raj-era Higginbotham’s (a chain founded in south India in the 1800s and once upon a time “official booksellers to His Royal Highness, the Prince of Wales”). Or go to Crossword (one of the finest shops in that chain) if you prefer a more contemporary scene with easy chairs to sit and test-read in.
If you’re looking for the latest crime fiction from around the globe, the finest resource is Gangarams Book Bureau— apparently about to relocate soon to St Mark’s Road above Koshy’s café (optimal!). I’ve picked up translated detective novels here that I haven’t spotted anywhere else, such as the weird Swedish toy-animal gumshoe adventure Amberville by Tim Davys. The current best crime novel, if you are a genre aficionado, is The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino—a rage in Japan, it reinvents the old puzzle mystery with aplomb, turning misdirection into a beautiful art.
The main trawling zone for book lovers is a string of second-hand bookshops. Select, the antiquarian shop tucked away in an alley off Brigade Road, has been around since 1945, but it has nowadays got company from several other second-hand booksellers, plus a number of more fleeting set-ups: remaindered and second-hand book sales that appear in some alcove or basement. By the time you get used to their presence, some of these shops are gone, as mysteriously as they first materialized, though two of the newer ones, the Bookworm and Blossom Book House, have become permanent fixtures on every book-hunters agenda.
Stacked: Blossom Book House is full of unusual crime fiction. Hemant Mishra/Mint
It may take some effort to track down crooked books at Blossom Book House, but sometimes the hunt is as rewarding as the trophies. Although it started as a minor player (the original shop covered some 100 sq. ft), it has grown to fill four floors with a mixture of second-hand books, antiquarian titles and discounted new books. Should you find the prospect of digging through the stacks, piled so precariously that they sometimes cascade avalanche-like off the shelves, daunting, then the proprietor down at the ground-floor counter will help you—he seems to know the whereabouts of every book in the shop.
What makes Blossom particularly attractive is the section labelled “Crime”—and we’re not talking about a few shelves here, but a corridor straight out of a librarian’s nightmare. Tens of thousands of thrillers—reprinted classics, cheap tattered copies of pulp, the latest hits, offbeat rarities—are collected here. This is where you go to get your fix of James Ellroy or Elmore Leonard, wallow in Ellery Queen or John Dickson Carr nostalgia, pick up that Mankell you’ve been missing, sift through musty piles to find one of those Nick Carter paperbacks penned by Martin Cruz Smith in his early 1970s pre-fame days (Inca Death Squad and The Devil’s Dozen were his contributions to that seemingly endless series) or perhaps unearth a copy of The Notebooks of Raymond Chandler.
One of my recent findings was a handy encyclopaedia that helps readers decode what goes on beneath the ground floors of civil society: Khallaas: An A to Z Guide to the Underworld by Jyotirmoy Dey, who was tragically gunned down by a team of sharpshooters in June. In August he was posthumously awarded the Prem Bhatia Award for Outstanding Political Reporting of the Year—which hopefully means that more shops will stock his books.
Just the other day I came across another title by Dey; Zero Dial: the Dangerous World of Informers. Through his writings, he is the reader’s knowledgeable guide to dodgy backstreets where intense characters drink masala-strong “cutting chai” in Irani cafés. We experience beer binges at seedy dance bars and meet intelligence officers who walk about unnoticed in their bathroom slippers (James Bond-like stylishness would be an immediate giveaway in Mumbai).
With chapter titles such as Nightmare in Jail and The Art of Double-Crossing, Zero Dial reads like a racy thriller, although it is based on the real stories of a handful of men who risk their lives to help investigators catch crooks. In return they get sporadic cash handouts of a few thousand or sometimes just a few hundred rupees. Known in underworld jargon as “Zero Dials”, they occasionally perform heroic deeds but are fated to remain “unsung heroes”, as Dey puts it.
The bookshops are the places that keep these crooked heroes, and their stories, alive. The possibility of discovering such unique books is the reason why I still prefer going to walk-in shops to do my browsing and buying, rather than logging on to online shops.
Zac O’Yeah is a Bangalore-based crime novelist. His most recent novel is Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan.
Write to Zac at email@example.com