Aditya Sinha: Crime writers who are killing it

Apr 30, 2018, 07:52 IST | Aditya Sinha

While India is yet to have a breakout mystery novel, crime fiction is finally coming of age here. Here are three favourites from 2018 so far

Indian publishing is investing in crime fiction nowadays. Representation pic
Indian publishing is investing in crime fiction nowadays. Representation pic

Aditya SinhaA British literary website recently stated that crime fiction now outsold any other genre in England. Good news. Indian publishing is investing in crime fiction nowadays even if there hasn't been a breakout crime novel in India, as some lamented at a crime fiction litfest in Delhi last year.

It might be because there hasn't much awe-inspiring crime fiction written by Indians, even if Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games is being adapted by web-based TV; in fact, the last jaw-dropper I read was Soji Shimada's The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, where towards the climax the author suddenly taunts the reader to try and solve the mystery. (He breaks this 'fourth wall' twice.) But in India, times are changing - perhaps it was always just a question of when the number of writers reached a critical mass, because some of that writing had to inevitably mature. I read a whole pile of crime fiction recently, and here are my three favourites of 2018 so far.

First was Ankush Saikia's fourth novel, More Bodies Will Fall (Penguin India, 311 pages), a noir crime thriller again starring the private investigator and ex-armyman Arjun Arora. It begins with the murder of a Naga girl in Delhi which remains unsolved a year later, when her father, through his army contacts, hires PI Arjun to uncover the truth. The truth leads Arora back to the Northeast (where Saikia sets all his novels) and he spends time in Shillong, in Dimapur, in Manipur and even across the border in Burma, collecting pieces of the jigsaw puzzle.

It is fast-paced: the more you write, the less flabby your writing becomes. It is unassuming: no showing off of language skills, though Saikia spent over a decade at the desk of India's biggest news magazine. It is detailed: you see every pothole in the road from Imphal to Churachandpur. (No wonder his Instagram is filled with photos of India's most biodiverse and ecologically rich region; he is no armchair writer.) And the resolution is satisfying without being a cliché. Though the victim dies before the story begins, I felt sad whenever she was remembered in the novel - you really feel for this victim.

I loved More Bodies Will Fall. What Saikia has done for Indian crime fiction should be publicly acknowledged: he redefines noir to also mean eating oily paratha from a cart on a Delhi roadside at night, while staking out a suspect. This is no mean achievement.

From the Northeast to the western coast, we come to Kalpana Swaminathan's magnificently written and charming Murder in Seven Acts (Speaking Tiger, 224 pages), a close second among crime fiction. The seven stories set in Mumbai's western suburbs star detective Lalli and are narrated by her niece Sita; they involve a whole bunch of "old world Bombay" eccentrics. The stories are necessarily short, so some of the tropes of crime writing - stumbling upon clues, being distracted by red herrings, personal setbacks - are compressed so much as to be negligible; what results is a setting up of the mystery/crime, and not long after that, its resolution. Detective Lalli explains with economy what transpires in between. This short-cutting is, however, more than made up for by the magical writing: like a crème brûlée, it is delicious and spell-binding, and then it is over. (Though I must confess that the story Suicide Point felt distractingly over-written.)

The plot resolutions are satisfying - as in the best crime writing, they're indiscernible at the beginning but seem obvious when finally revealed. The final story, and its final, final revelation (don't worry, no spoilers here) is one of the most wondrous treats for any lover of crime fiction. I will say no more other than that as soon as I finished, I looked up the catalogue of Lalli mysteries. This detective is one sexy sexagenarian.

Finally, there was Deepanjana Pal's Hush A Bye Baby (Juggernaut, 291 pages), which reminded me of Anita Nair's Chain of Custody, in that the crime fiction is actually a vehicle for larger social concerns. In Nair's case, it was child-trafficking, and in Deepanjana's case it is foetal sex determination and murder. Deepanjana writes engagingly, with sprinklings of chuckle-inducing wit as you plough through what is otherwise grim subject matter. Additionally, her police characters are well-etched and you feel for them, even more than you feel for the murder victims. The solution of the serial-killing holds no surprise - it perhaps isn't meant to - and may leave hardcore crime fiction fans less than impressed.

The writing and the pacing make it a worthwhile and recommended read, however. There were other releases this year and there will be others in the eight months that remain. It feels we're in the midst of a crime fiction bonanza: in a gruesome way, achhe din are finally here.

Aditya Sinha's book, The Spy Chronicles (HarperCollinsIndia), is out next month. He tweets @autumnshade Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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