What living room sleuths don't know

Feb 28, 2018, 08:59 IST | Ranjona Banerji

We all are familiar with detective shows and books to a certain extent, but that doesn’t make us detectives or forensic experts

Sridevi was found dead in her hotel suite in Dubai on February 24. File pic
Sridevi was found dead in her hotel suite in Dubai on February 24. File pic

Ranjona BanerjiI read a lot of detective fiction, a lot. I read all the categories that they have created these days - murder mysteries, courtroom dramas, crime fiction, police procedurals, forensic finagles, psychopath thrillers, sociopath sickies and whatever else you call them. This is an addiction that started when I was about nine, with Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan-Doyle and then Perry Mason and I just can't stop. Maybe, it started before that with the Secret Seven and all of Enid Blyton's clever detectives, especially Fatty. Or the Bobsey twins. I read through the Hardy Boys series one summer holiday and must confess I never liked Nancy Drew even though the writer was the same.'

Having travelled through all the types, I have ended up pretty much where I started - quaint and twee little English villages where mass murderers lurk, confusing some hapless police detective saved by some gumshoe. Or, the other way around, where Mr or Ms Plod is actually cleverer than some ratty private detective, always in a checked suit, who usually chases after erring husbands. I have in the past loved the gritty streets of New York, full of gangsters and thrilling slang, with cigarette butts dangling when important points are made. All those women who walk into smoky rooms with whisky bottles in desk drawers and thighs flashed at appropriate moments. Okay, I've mixed up the order in which those items appear, but you know what I mean.

Who could not love the lady from Botswana, created by the man in Scotland, as she drank bush tea and solved all sorts of mysteries, not just crimes?
I've been horrified and fascinated by post-mortems described in detail and complicated ways in which the human body reacts to blows (usually from “blunt objects”), hits, stabs, poisons and all the incredible ways in which writers think humans can kill each other or perhaps ways in which humans do really kill humans. All those special lighting devices that have ranges, which the human eye cannot discern, which reveal bodily fluids in places our human deficiencies cannot fathom. I know that bleach cannot remove all traces of blood. I know a DNA test takes longer than it does on TV.

And, truth be told, I watch all this stuff on TV as well. All of them. The American crime scene officers and coroners and medical examiners who do the “actual” police work while their beautifully blow-dried hair never moves a millimetre as they scramble up hillsides or delve into intestines. The British ones who look more real. The lords and ladies who delve into crime, where sometimes the picturisation is better than the book. Those forensic scientists who work with the police and those who don't. The profilers and the trackers, the undercovers and the straight-laced, the cold case experts, the husbands and wives who work together as they catch criminals together – I've made acquaintance with all of them. I had detailed knowledge about Langley, Virginia long before Priyanka Chopra got there!

There are times when I am sickened by the human imagination, at how low we can sink. Then I am equally sickened at what we have done as humans. Nothing like a detailed description of a disembowelling or of the crack of a hyoid bone, satisfying to that serial killer, to make you wish you had not had lunch. I've taken part in many discussions about who does crime writing better, men or women. I much prefer women although I have my favourites among male writers, too. And, it's not because women are kindler or gentler or less graphic. If you really think that, what have you actually read? I've had those discussions about why we like crime fiction, why some people don't, how Indian writing in English lags behind Indian languages when it comes to crime fiction, the difference between Indian films and western crime films...

But, in spite of all my knowledge, acquired over all these decades, I am not, alas, a detective or a crime solver or a gumshoe or a forensic scientist. I may have read and seen in great detail the various ways in which we commit violence, but I am still not an expert. And, that is why, I do not know how the great actor Sridevi died.
I can safely tell you though, nor do most of the “experts” who claim to know.

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on Twitter @ranjona Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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