Traumatic happenings in childhood and youth can send different people on different trajectories. In this case, one is moved by guilt to become a conscientious upholder of law and order, while another — transformed by abandonment and cruelty — to become an unconscionable serial killer. Who will prevail when they come on a collision course?
A spate of gory, horrific murders are occurring around Mumbai — the victims are overwhelmingly women, and all of them are found headless. Additional Commissioner of Police Maithili Prasad — who has to struggle extra in her work to satisfy her insecure male bosses — is entrusted to lead the manhunt for the ruthless murderer whose depredations have created panic in the city that never sleeps. But the killer seems much ahead of her, helped by the anonymity possible in a metropolis.
Prasad — who has to contend with some of her past inner demons of guilt and self-doubt — has to zero-in on how the serial killer became that way, in order to help identify him so the police know on whose trail they are. This is not helped when she is contacted by the killer, who seems to take pleasure in misleading them while taunting the police’s incapability to apprehend him and demanding he receive top billing as “Serial Killer No.1”.
Meanwhile, a desperate venture to catch the killer goes wrong with tragic consequences, and a demoralised Prasad, who has various vested interests sharpening knives for her, quits the force. But is she out of the cross hairs of a demented but meticulously planning killer, or has she abandoned her virtual crusade to collar him? The story is yet not done and ends on a thunderous climax in her home.
In his fourth book after “Mumbaistan”, “Compass Box Killer” and “Anti-Social Network”, film director-cum-author Piyush Jha creates plenty of chills but not that amount of thrills due to the story’s chronological structure and narrative device – alternating chapters from point of view of both protagonist and antagonist, while some references of tense do not help any bit.
The principal characters’ background and motivations also seems a bit contrived, and so do some characters — something sub-par for the author of those three gritty, uncompromisingly noir-ish stories of Mumbai’s ugly and treacherous side in “Mumbaistan”, from which one character — Inspector Ramesh Virkar — spun out to start his own series (in the two subsequent books).
But what Jha has managed in this to convey the group lack of empathy in a teeming metropolis — where it is easy to sink into anonymity, change your appearance and identity, and no one may even notice your absence or problems until it is too late, the ease of entering into relationships with total strangers, and the tense uncertainty and apprehension of danger that can paralyze even a pulsating, vibrant city.
He dwells on this topic in the afterword where he discusses the reasons for emergence of serial killers — both psychological and physiological — as part of the old inconclusive debate on whether criminals are born or made, and how the problem was compounded by Indian society and law and order machinery’s denial mode about the very presence.
The point is more starkly made in a special bonus section dealing with some recent instances of some lesser-known, unlikely, but no less bloodthirsty serial killers among us — and how they could run rings around police to target more random, unsuspecting people they didn’t even know, leave alone have any quarrel with.
Any of us could be a target — unless we collectively learn to be more concerned and aware citizens.
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