Death Comes as the End

A round-up of Indian detective fiction novels this season.

Written by Paromita Chakrabarti , Anushree Majumdar , Pooja Pillai | Published: June 16, 2018 1:24:46 am
Hush a Baby Bye is authored by  Deepanjana Pal. (File) 

Books: Hush A Bye Baby
Author: Deepanjana Pal
Publication: Juggernaut
Pages: 290
Price: 350

I came to Hush A Bya Baby after reading Naomi Alderman’s exciting (and terrifying) dystopian novel, The Power, about a world in which women set the rules, and at a time when outrage against the horrific Kathua rape was gathering momentum. It made journalist and writer Deepanjana Pal’s book about a celebrity Mumbai gynaecologist accused of female foeticide seem more urgent, given our dysfunctional times. Pal, thankfully, lives up to the promise of her premise. The novel pulses with feminine rage that those at the tilted end of the gender imbalance in India will recognise as their own. Dr Nandita Rai is a champion of women’s rights and privy to the secrets of the rich and famous. It makes the mostly anonymous accusations against Rai appear preposterous, but Inspector Manohar Hadpude knows not to go by appearances. Hadpude and his trusted team of two — sub-inspector Lad, known for his interrogation skills and penchant for under-the-table, off-the-record incentives, and, sub-inspector Reshma Gabuji, daughter of a wealthy Bohra businessman, with a keen interest in mastering cyber skills — will need all their ingenuity to prove the case and to thwart the pressure of Rai’s builder husband and well-connected friends to obtain a clean chit for her. Even though the pace falters towards the end, Pal’s debut holds out great promise. At its best, crime fictions are explorations of the faultlines of society, those jagged edges that cleave into the natural order of life and throw it into mayhem. Pal explores these grimy depths with a surgeon’s precision and a television anchor’s hyper-realism, throwing up questions that speak for our times: if no one will defend the truth, who do you turn to? Perhaps, Pal could address more of that in a sequel. PC

Book: More Bodies Will Fall
Author: Ankush Saikia
Publication: Penguin Random House
Pages: 320 pages
Price: 399

How can we measure the lives of those who’ve been brutally murdered? A parent holds on to an album where the colours of the photographs fade a little as the days go by; files gather dust in police stations, and a detective makes a note of objects left behind in a musty room. The beginning of More Bodies Will Fall, the third instalment of Ankush Saikia’s Detective Arjun Arora series, begins in classic noir fashion: a secret meeting, a crime that takes place many years later, a reluctant detective roped in to solve a case going cold. But there is a flash of poignance when Arora goes to Amenla Longkumer’s old room in Safdarjung Enclave in Delhi and tries to piece together the life of a 29-year-old Naga call-centre worker. Arora, a former army man who lived in the Northeast, takes up the case and it leads him back to where he would rather not return — Guwahati, then Meghalaya, Nagaland, Manipur and finally, Myanmar — tailing a ruthless insurgency-drug trade nexus that flourishes in a picturesque landscape. Saikia plots a tight, although slightly predictable tale of a seemingly ordinary crime that sets off a deep dive into the history of the Naga-Kuki conflict in the 1990s, the army’s role, and how individual lives were impacted. What Saikia offers in this book, as compared to his older ones (Dead Meat, Remember Death), is a unique engagement between “Indians” (those who live outside of the seven northeastern states) and people who are routinely called “Chinky”. As a character, Arora is a perfect bridge that allows these spaces and identities to mingle with each other. Only one gripe: Saikia painstakingly describes every detail of his movements, which slows down the pace of this otherwise unputdownable book. AM

Book: Death at the Durbar
Author: Arjun Raj Gaind
Publication: Harper Black
Pages: 368 
Price: 399

Death at the Durbar begins in that most conventional of ways — with the corpse of a beautiful young woman. It is 1911 and the eyes of the world are on Delhi as the one-time capital of the Mughals prepares itself for a grand durbar to celebrate the coronation of King George V. Nothing can be allowed to disrupt the grand event, and so, when a nautch girl is discovered dead inside the emperor’s personal chamber, only the quickest of minds can prevent a full-scale scandal from erupting. One such, luckily, is at hand to take control of the situation. Maharaja Sikandar Singh of Rajapore — aesthete, playboy and amateur detective — has already built a reputation for being able to ferret out clues and close cases, and he is quickly roped in by the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, to solve the murder before the King Emperor himself arrives. Filled with blue-blooded suspects and ladder-climbing parvenus, Death at the Durbar had the potential to be as ripe and riveting a whodunit as was ever written during the Golden Age of detective fiction if only the actual investigation was as interesting as the local and temporal colour with which Gaind fattens his narrative. Still, even if seasoned readers are able to guess the identity of the culprit about halfway through the story, it remains an enjoyable read because of how convincingly it paints a picture of a bygone era and the powerful men who lived at the time. PP

Book: Murder at the Happy Home for the Aged
Author: Bulbul Sharma
Publication: Penguin
Pages: 273
Price:  299

Set in verdant Goa, Bulbul Sharma’s return to fiction with Murder at the Happy Home for the Aged is a Miss Marple-ish acount of what happens when change comes to the small village of Trionim. The motley geriatric cast at the old-age home — acid-tongued Prema, Russian artist Yuri, peacekeeper Cyrillo, acerbic Deven and astute Rosie — is roused to intellectual action when the body of an unknown woman is discovered hanging from a tree in their overgrown garden. Who could it be and why had she come to die in their lawns?
But that’s as gory as it gets in this murder mystery. Instead, Sharma brings her artist’s observation to life in Goa where the influx of tourists — including those from north India, whom the state’s town and country planning minister Vijai Sardesai called the “scum of the earth” earlier this year — have wrought irrevocable changes. Sharma’s sweeping glance takes in the villas that have come up on farmland and are owned by city dwellers who jet in for a couple of months every year, and the jobs and envy they generate; it burrows into the tightly-knit community life of the villages where nothing passes unseen, and rests uneasily on an increasingly disruptive counter-culture of drugs, mafia and deceit. But, perhaps, where Sharma succeeds the most is in her depiction of old age — the constant awareness of one’s mortality, the necessary dependence on others and the remembrance of a life whose best years have gone past. PC

Book: The Shrine of Death
Author: Divya Kumar
Publication: Bloomsbury India
Pages: 296 
Price: 399

If reading Divya Kumar’s The Shrine of Death while stretched out on a beach somewhere, remember to slap on some sunscreen and order enough beer to last you at least a couple of hours. Because once you start on this book, it’s unlikely you’ll set it down before you race to the end. The Shrine of Death has all the ingredients required for a thrilling beach read: an ambitious and beguiling beauty who stumbles onto a web of conspiracy and then vanishes, two amateur detectives — one of whom is harbouring a disquieting secret — and a dishy love interest (a man in uniform, no less).
The plot is fairly straightforward: IT professional Prabha Sinha gets an unsettling phone call from her old friend, Sneha, and is drawn into an investigation of her disappearance and the theft of some priceless Chola sculptures. The book switches between Prabha’s perspective, and that of the troubled Jai, who is, for reasons of his own, helping her figure out what happened to Sneha.
Apart from the deftly managed suspense, what draws the reader in is Kumar’s ability to flesh out characters. One gets a real sense of the emotional stakes involved, and, as the story progresses, the stakes only get higher. Given the premise — that of heritage loot, a major problem in India — this book could have quite easily been overloaded with research. But the writer maintains a light touch, although there should still be enough to satisfy art history and archaeology wonks. PP

Book: A Murder on Malabar Hill
Author: Sujata Massey
Publication: Penguin Random House
Pages: 440
Price: 399

After turning the last page of A Murder on Malabar Hill, one really hopes that somebody in the movie business decides to adapt for the big screen. Welcome to Bombay in 1921, possibly the most cosmopolitan city outside of Europe, where the Parsis build grand structures, the British tan evenly, and some Indians are plotting to fight for home rule. Enter Perveen Mistry, who studied law at Oxford but can only work as a solicitor in her father’s firm, because women are forbidden from practising in court. While her gender has often felt as an impediment to Perveen, it becomes an advantage when she gets involved in a case with three pardanashin widows of a Muslim cotton mill owner, a former client of her father’s. There is plenty of money at stake, and ownership is up in the air — could there be a better reason and timing for murder? Perveen has featured before in Massey’s collection of novellas, called India Gray, and one can treat A Murder on Malabar Hill as an origin tale. Massey weaves an ambitious and carefully plotted tale of women who find themselves in spaces owned by men, and how they can emerge to discover a new sense of self. Perveen is inspired by two Parsi women Cornelia Sorabji, the first woman to practise law in Britain and India, and Mithan Jamshed Lam, the first Indian woman lawyer at the Bombay High Court. Massey packs her narrative with details about marriage laws, Bombay city life, a nemesis from the past — it takes a toll on the first half of the book. The murder only takes place after the first 100 pages or so, and then Perveen and the reader are thrown into a rather enjoyable frenzy. Am

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