Bengali gentle folk, disreputable dog trainers, and a 17th century aristocrat make our list of desi detectives for these warm winter nights.
At MBRB we are unabashed crime fiction aficionados. You’ve heard us wax lyrical about our favourite female detectives more than once, and every book list invariably circles around to the latest pulpy bestseller with an artfully arranged body or two. But while we don’t share the literary world’s snobbery about “genre fiction”, we do believe that there is a world of difference between a poorly plotted, patchily written whodunit, and one that crackles with energy and atmosphere as you stay up all night trying to finish it.
A recent trip to the Hindustan Times Crime Writers Festival prompted heated discussions in the MBRB HQs about our favourite desi detectives (What we’d give for a wonderfully written noir set in the bylanes of Chandni Chowk, or a salacious gossipy murder story set in the high rises of Lokhandwala.). These are the detectives we can recommend without reservation, and their adventures are all easily available in English! So go ahead, bundle up with a bowl of soup and one of these zippy books to escape these interminable winters.
Even before Sushant Singh Rajput’s film (or erstwhile MBRB object of affection Rajit Kapur’s TV show), the Byomkesh Bakshi series by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay had a formidable cult following. And while some of the plotting may be inspired by Sherlock Holmes, the detective’s peculiar Bengali neuroses and fussiness are all him. In fact we’d go as far as to suggest that you ignore some of the clunky elements of the mysteries altogether, and instead allow the period details of Kolkatan society to envelop you as you enjoy these stories.
Prodosh Chandra Mitra’s misanthropy and analytical prowess is even more inspired by Sherlock Holmes than Mr. Bakshi’s! But we’ve always loved this Charminar-blowing detective for the way he acts as a mirror into creator Satyajit Ray‘s playful nature. We are especially fond of all the colourful characters that inhabit Feluda’s universe- popping in and out of stories with a comforting regularity. Infact our biggest complaint about Ray’s Sonar Kela was the short shrift he gave to our favourite of these character- Jatayu- the bumbling pulp fiction writer.
If only one of the filmmakers clamouring over the filming rights of Chetan Bhagat’s or Amish Tripathi’s latest screed would consider Sacred Games instead. The book is without doubt the best Bollywood film which isn’t a film. And Sartaj Singh (whom we first meet in Vikram Chandra’s Love and Longing in Bombay), is the kind of conflicted, hesitant hero that our macho jingoistic culture needs. Described as “ past forty, a divorced police inspector with middling professional prospects”, his fundamental niceness and moral compass make him our favourite Indian detective of all times.
Given that HRF Keating- the creator of Inspector Ganesh Ghote visited India ten years after writing his first Ghote novel, it is easy to excuse him of orientalism. But like all good crime fiction writers, Keating first started with an interesting character, and then shaded him with nuance and populated his world with realistic characters and obstacles (in this case the unsurmountable bureaucracy of Bombay Police). Each of the Ghote books add more depth to this world, and by the time you reach the fourth or fifth one, it is almost impossible to believe that the writer doesn’t stay in Bombay himself! (Hey, Rushdie hasn’t stayed in Mumbai for over 35 years now!) Start with The Perfect Murder , watch the Merchant Ivory film with Naseeruddin Shah playing Ghote, and then prepare to lose a month of your life as you make your way through the rest of series.
We loved Kalpana Swaminathan’s Bougainvillea House, and enjoy both her reportage and books written with Ishrat Syed under the moniker Kalpish Ratna. But it is her Lalli we are hooked to! Just because she is grey haired , Lalli is not a Ms. Marple wannabe. Instead as an ex-police detective she is measured and dry and near no-nonsense (even if occasionally tactless!). The only thing she shares with Miss Marple is her gentle exasperation with unnecessary emotions, and an indefatigable curiosity that refuses to let go until she gets to the end of the mystery. Read Page 3 Murders for a perfect morsel of entertainment on a weekday night!
A huge part of the charm of Tarquin Hall’s Vish Puri books is exclaiming at their familiarity! Here Vish is- interviewing a suspect in a shop that is rather similar to one you were in just last week, and there he is talking to a woman who sounds suspiciously like your 8th Standard English School Teacher. It is this ability to create familiar characters with the dispassionate eyes of an outsider (he has never quite managed to get over the Indian class structure of “servants” and “masters”) that make Hall’s books a must read. Our favourite? Why, The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken of course.
We are long time readers and admirers of Madhulika Liddle’s wonderful compassionate blog about old Hindi cinema, but it is with The Englishman’s Cameo that we became fans of her prose. And what a premise the book has! A mystery set in the 17th century Mughal court that involves political intrigue, palanquins, courtesans and heartbreak! No wonder she has written a follow up novel and book of short stories about this era with the same protagonist since. Her filmy loving heart (we hope) would let us indulge our dream of seeing a young Sunil Dutt play Jang in a movie in our heads.
If you were a lonely child with a love for books, you probably shared our fascination for the lurid covers of the pulpy best sellers that the Railway Stations stocked. There was something illicit about them (just as there was about the half-dressed woman on the cover of Manohar Kahaniyaan next to it), but your interest was piqued anyway. Well, you can now satisfy that thirty-year old itch by reading Ibn E Safi’s Colonel Faridi mysteries in English. This super rich detective with a penchant for dog training, and absolute lack of interest in the opposite sex is a lot tamer than the covers suggested. And while we can’t whole heartedly call these books “good”, we can- without reservation- call them “good fun” with their piles of corpses, evil super villains and duplicitous vamps. Read to unravel one of the last remaining mysteries of your childhood.