It’s your first day in a new job in a new city. You do not know the language or how to proceed on your assignment, forget the right (or wrong) people to contact to get it done. Now, fill in the X factors — the city you find yourself in is Mumbai, and the job, that of a crime reporter. The Indian Express’s crime reporter Mohamed Thaver’s debut novel, In Plain Sight, starts with this intriguing premise and proceeds to unpack the inner workings of both — the crime beat of a newspaper as well as that of “one of the premier investigating agencies in the country”: the Mumbai crime branch.
Rohan is a rookie reporter in the Maximum City, having arrived from Allahabad via Delhi. While he is not sure whether he wants to take up journalism as a career in the long term, he feels that the crime beat would give him a ringside view of “things that has always fascinated him — the brooding cop, the wily criminal, the mind games, the chase, and the final unravelling.”
After reporting on a couple of low-key cases which teach Rohan the ropes of the beat — which police personnel to have good terms with, getting past the local dialect and its abbreviations, or how to decode various leads (after all, “a good story was just a question away”), he gets to cover a series of murders in Nehru Nagar, a low-income area in the city.
The first murder doesn’t really seem newsworthy, but that changes soon. The repetition and brazenness of the subsequent crimes bring into focus the ineptitude of the crime branch. A race to solve the case begins and the focus of the story alternates between Rohan’s attempts to keep pace with the investigation and the accounts of various investigating officers trying to find the perpetrator before public opinion about them plummets further.
Crime fiction that devotes itself to describing and solving the crime from the investigating officer’s point-of-view is a popular genre in literature. PD James’ immortal Adam Dalgliesh, Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley and, closer home, Anita Nair’s Inspector Gowda and Vaseem Khan’s Inspector Chopra series come to mind. What makes In Plain Sight unusual is the perspective of the reporter, that adds depth to the narrative. The machinations involved in new reportage, in fact of what passes as news, is as important a part of the story as the actual solving of the crimes.
The interplay between politicians, the police and the media is brought out in the novel, as is the internal politics between not just various newspapers, but also within the various departments of a newspaper. Who gets the lead and how, what makes for a “story” worth printing is shown through Rohan’s eyes. There’s also the wrangling and politics within the various branches of the police that make the book an exciting read.
A tighter editing, especially of the middle when the mystery is heating up, and more focus on the characters would have improved the storyline, but this is a debut of promise and one that ends with the hope of more to come.
(Jonaki Ray is a Delhi-based poet and writer)
In Plain Sight
By Mohamed Thaver