2014’s best crime fiction debuts
This has certainly been a vintage year for crime fiction debuts by Indian writers; in no previous year was my desk crammed with so many nail-biting page-turners. Let me introduce you to five favourites.
Bollywood screenwriter and ex-crime reporter Mahendra Jakhar has put his expertise to serious use in The Butcher Of Benares, which takes readers on a wild trip through the sacred city. It features a hard-boiled hero of the kind I’ve been missing lately, Hawa Singh aka “The Ghost”, a crazy guy with a bullet lodged inside his head. With his beloved Colt 45 he can blow a massive crater through any enemy in his path, but he kills equally comfortably with his bare hands.
In Benares, where he has brought his dying father, he comes across a case that begs his intervention—a female tourist has been found floating with her heart wrenched out of her chest. It turns out that she’s an astronomer employed by the Vatican and the post-mortem throws up pages of a horoscope predicting her own death, that she’s apparently eaten. As more victims pop up, it becomes obvious that there’s a serial killer on the loose, and the manhunt takes Singh through palaces, burning ghats and lunatic asylums. It’s a bit like The Silence Of The Lambs meets The Da Vinci Code.
More in the vein of Robert Ludlum arm-wrestling with John Grisham is Yudhi Raman’s The Tantalus Redemption—a high-octane, super-pulpy global thriller. An abandoned mine in Sierra Leone, western Africa, is found to contain huge deposits of tantalum, an expensive mineral rarer than gold, which is needed for making mobile phones (without tantalum, there wouldn’t be a computer age).
This thriller has it all, including priceless fight scenes featuring unusual lines such as this one: “He glided diagonally to the right as move five and prepared for the Duryodhan-praharam as the sixth strike—the mortal wound that Bhima had inflicted on Duryodhana in the Mahabharat by hitting him in the thigh with a mace.”
Another pleasant surprise was S.T.A.L.K.E.D. by Girvani Dhyani, set in the world of corporate law. Young Mumbai lawyer Tara suspects somebody at her office sells classified information. Determined to expose the leak, she enters into an eerie cat-and-mouse game as the culprit turns the tables on her and begins stalking her.
The routine investigation takes a dangerous twist as “Biscuit” and various voluptuous consular co-workers unearth clues hinting at high-level corruption. The author does a grand job of exploring the action-potential in New Delhi’s diplomatic enclave and the result is what The Constant Gardener might have read like were it penned in Khushwant Singh’s humorous tone.
The last book on my list is a ready-made classic and thus no mean feat by a debutant. The Avatari by army man Raghu Srinivasan falls under the adventure category with its epic plot, partly set in the past and featuring characters like Kublai Khan and Marco Polo, although the bulk of the action takes place in the 1980s in England, Africa, the US and Asia.
A retired colonel, Sir Henry Ashton has, for some unaccountable reason, been tasked with saving the world’s greatest ancient secret hidden somewhere in the Himalayas, towards which a trail of clues lead us via a Soviet-occupied Afghanistan on the brink of civil war. The colonel’s team comprises his trusted Gurkha sergeant, Durga Bahadur aka Duggy, math genius and code breaker Susan Hamilton, and Peter Khan, an African mercenary wanted by the CIA. The gung-ho combat descriptions are tantalizing and make military strategy interesting even for the layman.
One of the great pleasures of The Avatari is the polished, clipped prose, a quality that is sadly lacking in many mainstream thrillers.
Zac O’Yeah is the author of Once Upon A Time In Scandinavistan and Mr Majestic: The Tout Of Bengaluru.