Desi crime novels set in British era

The extended lockdown has had one good outcome that no one is talking about: Indians are reading more, reluctantly perhaps but how long can you watch TV and play on your phone? For me the biggest plus has been the discovery of a completely new genre of books, namely, the historical crime novels situated in India. What’s more, these novels are by writers of Indian origin. This gives them that little feel or empathy about the people they are writing about.

The first such I discovered is Sujata Massey who has created a female Parsi lawyer character working in the first quarter of the 20th century in Bombay, as it was then. She is young Perveen Mistry who also solves murder mysteries. These books are wonderfully written, in a calm and polished style. They bring the old Bombay to life, some of which had lasted till the building boom since 1980.

Another such writer is Abir Mukherjee, born in Scotland. I have so far read only one book by him and am looking forward to reading the other three whenever it becomes possible to buy them after this coronavirus thing is over. Be warned, though. There is another writer of the same name who writes entirely a different sort of novel. In fact, the two Abirs are not unlike my cousin and I. We have very similar names and identical initials. But he writes books that show history must be taken seriously, while I write books on modern economics. Mine show that economics is good fiction.

Abir Mukherjee writes in that polished way where not a word is out of place, not a sentence superfluous. That makes his book a page-turner.

Anyway, the Abir I am talking has created a dogged English character called Sam Wyndham of the Imperial Police, that’s what IPS was known before 1947. This Wyndham has many weaknesses, one of which is a preference for opium — the purer the better because, like good scotch, it doesn’t give hangovers.

He has a sidekick, a young Cambridge-educated Bengali called Surendranath. The Brits call him Surrender-not. This is a little dig by the author at their pronunciation of Lord Jagannath, who became Juggernaut. Surrender-not’s surname is Banerjee. For those who don’t know, and I am sure most don’t, there is another Surendranath Banerjee in Indian history, an important politician of the late 19th and early 20th century. So that’s a nice aside, too.

Mukherjee writes in that polished way where not a word is out of place, not a sentence superfluous. This is hard work of a different kind, almost like writing an intricate musical core. That makes his book a page-turner. You want to find out who did it but you don’t flip through the pages to the end. That, to my mind, is the hallmark of excellence in crime novel writing. That’s a rare quality amongst mystery writers.

Nor does he waste many words describing colonial India in very great detail or lament its racial inequities as self-conscious Brits who write about it tend to do. He accepts India as it was then — gora boss, kala naukar. Some goras are fine, just as some naukars are, too. The plots are intricately woven but with a very light touch. So. you never get that sense of oppression that some mystery writers impart.

That said, these books — Massey, Mukherjee etc — don’t seem to be written for an Indian audience. They are intended, I think, for a predominantly British readership that likes to think of India in a certain happy way. Never mind. These writers have created a new genre. That, by itself, is a good enough reason to read them. It’s completely different from the crime novels set in India by British writers. Those are good but don’t quite make the cut.

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