A wannabe journalist gets a chance to fill in for a lazy veteran crime reporter and is sent to cover a routine press conference at the headquarters of the Delhi Police. On the way, Abhishek, who hasn’t eaten all day, has a few dicey extra-oily masala omelettes from one of the vendors outside the ITO offices.

By the time he walks into the press conference, he has to run to the toilets to do some damage control. While there, he overhears a conversation he isn’t supposed to—two top cops are talking about the return to India of a dreaded kidnapping mastermind.

Is this a golden opportunity for the rookie reporter or a curse? On the one hand, the accidental inside information seems like a sure-fire career starter, but can it also mean that he’s putting himself in danger? When he broaches the topic to his editor, he’s warned to tread cautiously and proceed at his own risk.

But the relationship between the fourth estate and the protectors of law isn’t all that straightforward—Abhishek finds himself negotiating a complex reality as he follows the police on night-time raids and has his days increasingly ruined by mean office politics. But Abhishek lives on the kicks from the headlines he garners. “Yes, there it was—his name on the front page. Like a junkie on a first hit, he sat down and let the wave of unexpected elation sweep over him." But just like a junkie, his worry is always about where to get the next heady rush.

All of this makes for an awesome read. What this debut novel lacks in terms of evocative milieu descriptions and lifelike dialogues, it amply makes up for in its vividly drawn characters—such as the grizzled ageing reporter Amir, Abhishek’s boss and mentor at the newspaper; and the colourful top cop Uday who likes to regale journalists with anecdotes of his exploits. Through them we are let into a strange world that exists behind the headlines we read in our morning papers.

The Price You Pay has a distinctly rugged journalistic touch to its prose—suggesting that perhaps this is partially autobiography thinly concealed as fiction. You feel you’re walking with the reporters and police through Delhi’s underbelly, raiding the old town’s gambling dens, experiencing visa rackets in the diplomatic enclave, and you get all this through the confident voice of Batabyal, who, as a matter of fact, did spend a decade as a crime reporter in Delhi, and who his blurbist now compares to Raymond Chandler.

I’ve often thought that Indian cities are interesting but underutilized settings for thrillers. There are practically whole bookshops of detective fiction dedicated to cities like Los Angeles, New York, London or Stockholm, and tourists seek out the settings of suspenseful stories by Raymond Chandler or Arthur Conan Doyle. The Price You Pay is therefore a very welcome addition to this genre in India.

If Batabyal is the Raymond Chandler of Delhi, then the Dashiell Hammett of Mumbai must be Piyush Jha, who directs movies when he’s not working as a best-selling pulp writer. Jha is out with a fresh thriller in his Mumbaistan series, a juicy read called Compass Box Killer. A mysterious assassin murders a policeman on a muggy afternoon in Mumbai in the middle of a bustling police station—and Inspector Virkar is up against two formidable enemies: a serial killer on the one hand and, on the other hand, the media that creates its own hysteria around the case.

Inspector Virkar has his roots among the Koli fisherfolks of Colaba and occasionally, to clear his mind, he hitches a boat ride, taking with him a kilo of Jhinga Koliwada and a crate of the north Indian favourite Godfather beer, spurning Mumbai’s very distinctive London Pilsner, and thus spends the night out with the fishermen before he goes on to solve his cases. Rich in local detail, this novel will keep you turning the pages.

I’ll stick my neck out and venture to proclaim that with writers like Batabyal, Jha and the Bangalore-based Eshwar Sundaresan (whose debut Behind the Silicon Mask I praised in a column earlier this year), Indian thriller writing is poised to make waves on the international horizon very soon.

Zac O’Yeah is the author of Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan and Mr Majestic: The Tout of Bengaluru.

Also Read | Zac’s previous Lounge columns

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