Stranger than fiction
True crime, though an emerging genre in India, is one of modern publishing’s great success stories
I’ve recently been approached by not only one but two New Delhi publishers who want me to write true crime books and it doesn’t help when I gently point out that the crimes I know well enough to write about are fictitious and only take place in my head.
They made me curious though, so I decided to see for myself the hypothetical competition by going to the bookshops—and came back with a bag full of assorted goodies. True crime is definitively a growing market, yet in Indian shops these books are often found mixed up with fiction, which perhaps accounts for why publishers think I would be good at that genre.
A recent high point in the genre, Death In Mumbai (2011) by journalist Meenal Baghel, narrates the bizarre story of an aspiring actor who goes to Mumbai to seek fame, but ends up, together with her boyfriend, chopping up a television executive—allegedly in as many as 300 pieces. Through interviews with perpetrators, friends, relatives, and investigators, Baghel uncovers several tragic sagas of small-town young people who crack up in the big city’s ocean of drugs and sex.
Also worth picking up is Zero Dial: The Dangerous World Of Informers (2010) by the late Jyotirmoy Dey, the Mumbai-based crime reporter who was shot dead—which goes to show that some of these writers live dangerously. Dey takes readers through mean and murky back-streets in order to tell the stories of men who risk their lives to help investigators catch crooks. In return for information, they get sporadic cash handouts of sometimes just a few hundred rupees.
Mumbai seems to be the centre of attention when it comes to India-related true crime books, for there’s also The Siege: The Attack On the Taj (2013) by journalists Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark, a book about the 2008 terror attacks. Here we are taken inside the Taj Mahal hotel to meet the victims as they struggle to stay alive during the three-day shootout. It is as grisly reading as their previous book, The Meadow: The Kashmir Kidnapping That Changed the Face Of Modern Terrorism (2012), about some of the foreign tourists who were kidnapped and beheaded by Kashmiri militants in the mid-1990s.
On the foreign front, fresh off the press, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby And the Great Betrayal by Ben Macintyre is a gossipy biography of a psychopathic spy who infiltrated the British MI6. The book has got it all: adventure, booze, sex, murder, debauchery and an afterword by John le Carré, the master of the espionage novel. Notable spy novelists such as Ian Fleming, Graham Greene and Dennis Wheatley also appear in its pages—Greene, for example, is quoted as lamenting how hard it is to get hold of contraceptives where he is posted as a British spy in Africa, somewhat blurring the lines between the literary world and the shady underworld of real espionage.
Finally, and good to read in connection with the previous, Who Killed Hammarskjöld? The UN, The Cold War And White Supremacy In Africa (2011) by Susan Williams presents the facts in the case of the mysterious death in 1961 of the UN secretary-general Dag Hammarskjöld while on a peacekeeping mission to Africa. By leaving the plot open-ended the author allows readers to draw their own conclusions: It’s fairly obvious that European or South African mercenaries were involved in the massacre of Hammarskjöld and his 15 travel companions, but tantalizing clues also implicate certain Western intelligence agencies—not entirely implausibly, given the turmoil during the decolonization process.
I predict that what we see is the tip of an iceberg and soon every Indian publishing house is going to develop true crime lists. If you’re an author, and have the stomach for it, writing about crimes might secure you a handsome publishing deal. And perhaps true crime books will, like in other countries, eventually have their own shelves in shops here as well.
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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