With detective fiction fast catching the fancy of readers, more Indian writers in English are coming up with novels in this genre

While we are captivated by the doings of Ms. Lisbeth Salander, let it not be said that Indian writing in English is lagging behind in the detective fiction genre. We have Aditya Sudarshan's classic locked-door mystery “A Nice Quiet Holiday,” C.K. Meena's meditation on gender and sexuality in “Dreams for the Dying”, Smita Jain's smart and sassy “Piggies on the Railway” and Kalpana Swaminathan's “Monochrome Madonna”.

“There are more writers working with the genre and more readers engaging with them,” says Karthika V. K., Publisher and Chief Editor, Harper Collins Publishers India.

“Crime fiction might still be a novelty in Indian writing in English but not in regional languages,” says Sudarshan Purohit who has translated master of suspense, Surender Mohan Patnaik's iconic Vimal series from Hindi for Blaft.

Aditya, who would rather describe his debut work “A Nice Quiet Holiday” as a mystery novel, says, he “always enjoyed and admired this genre of novels, so I just wanted to write one of my own.”

Talking about how her book came to be, Meena says: “When the germ of the idea for ‘Dreams...' popped into my head, I saw a woman living in two cities, taking trains every weekend between work and home. I saw her getting murdered. Then I thought to myself, why not try out a murder mystery? It was a challenge I set myself.”

A challenge

Writing detective fiction is a challenge because genre readers are strict about the rules and would reject any so-called cheating. So Aditya went through “G.K. Chesterton's essays on the technique of detective fiction, including one called ‘How to write a detective story',” while Meena says “having been an avid murder mystery fan since my youth, the rules of the genre came instinctively to me.”

Smita says: “The only rules are there are no rules. Having said that, yes, one does try to adhere to the don'ts more strictly than the dos. For instance, an evil twin is a strict no-no in modern crime fiction, so one tries to avoid that. Also the butler must never do it.”

One of the comments at a recent discussion on Swedish crime fiction was about how the whodunit has morphed into the why-dunit. About whether it applies to crime fiction in Indian writing in English, Smita says: “Technology has made the identification of the murderer a certainty. It is much more gratifying, therefore, to concentrate on the why of a crime.”

Meena concurs, saying: “The classic body-in-the-library-butler-did-it murder mystery format has run out of steam. The whydunit seems to have endless possibilities, not only to generate pace and suspense but also to get into characters, issues, history, politics, you name it.”

Karthika puts it in perspective when she says: “In Indian crime fiction, we often know the ‘who' in real life but we also know no law will catch up with that ‘who.' We can only seek the answer to the question ‘why'.” Aditya, however, begs to differ. “The old school crime stories of Doyle, Chesterton and Christie tended to focus on crime as individual, aberrant human behaviour, committed for reasons that we need to understand. But modern crime fiction has less interest in the individual criminal and more in the social phenomenon of crime.” “Piggies on the Railway” introduces private investigator Kasthuri Kumar, a series heroine, and “Monochrome Madonna” is the third book featuring retired police officer Lalli. Smita says “Kasthuri and the other peripheral characters, are so much fun that I can't wait to explore them further. I can't help falling in love with my characters. It must be a weakness because not only Kasthuri Kumar Mysteries, even Kkrishnaa's Konfessions is a series. I'm writing the sequel right now.”

Karthika endorses the series detective attaining cult status a la Poirot or Inspector Morse, saying: “There is no reason why there shouldn't be several such. I know of several writers attempting to create such characters who would work not only for the Indian reader but also internationally. Because I think that's the critical point that needs to be arrived at — a series that takes off all over the world. It's like a race really — whoever gets there first will set the bar for all those who follow.” So now we have the option of choosing between following murders most foul in elegant English manors, the mean streets of New York, the chill climes of Uppsala or in the colourful chaos of Mumbai. The game is certainly afoot!

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