Review Books

Murder in Seven Acts: Lalli Mysteries by Kalpana Swaminathan reviewed by R. Krithika

Kalpana Swaminathan’s detective Lalli is often compared to Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. But given how Lalli’s investigations lead her into the seamier side of the city, the smashed up and burnt bodies she has to see and her knowledge of the most obscure topics, it seems to me that she’s more a toned down version of Richard Austin Freeman’s medico-legal investigator John Thorndyke.

Murder in Seven Acts is a set of short stories, each one dedicated to a different person. (Sorry to be so curious, but I would have loved to know who they are and why they have a story dedicated to them.) In these seven stories, Lalli walks through a maze of family politics, right-wing lunacy, high fashion and more with her customary sangfroid. The usual supporting cast of Savio, Shukla and his wife, and Sita are also in fine form.

This was the first Lalli book that others in my family were reading and there were constant questions of “Who is Savio?”, “Why does Vedavalli bring a book for Sita to sign?” It struck me that while regulars know who is who, it might be a good idea to have a list of characters for the new entrants to Lalli’s world.

Beware of jealousy

The first story, ‘A Face in the Crowd’, sets the tone for the book. Aunty May lives alone near Bandra and complains of being followed. Her caregiver finds a sack of old bones, a photograph and a baby’s dress hidden in her bathroom wall.

The obvious conclusion is that she had a baby out of marriage. But Lalli doesn’t think so because first, the bones are anatomical specimens, and two, they are not human. Her investigations show that jealousy and thwarted love often lead to murder.

‘The Quantum Question’ requires the knowledge of Schrödinger’s Cat and quantum physics. While I got the simple mechanics of human lust, anger and sorrow that brought a dead person back to life, the more difficult questions of physics made my head ache.

In ‘The Sixth Pandava’, Lalli takes on the Hindu right-wing forces who organise a book burning and wind up burning the author. But was it only the goondas or someone else? Through Lalli’s voice, Swaminathan offers a stern rebuke to all those who choose to be mere bystanders when something bad is happening.

Bottomless well

In ‘Murder Prêt-à-Porter’ Sita is convinced she’s sitting next to a serial killer in a city bus. Only, the man turns up killed. The story is an intriguing mix of high fashion, Scrabble and word play, and stealing of another’s ideas.

‘Suicide Point’ introduces the reader to Teddy, a police mole and one of Lalli’s rescues; a well that never yields the bodies of the people who jump into it; and a shop named Antim Bidi. When Teddy sends Lalli a cryptic note about going off to Suicide Point, Lalli sets out not to find his body but a racket in preparing skeletons for medical colleges.

The last two stories don’t quite work. ‘Murder in Seven Acts’ mixes textiles, art, cooking, sibling rivalry and family inheritance but the different streams don’t form a cohesive whole. ‘Threnody’ left me disappointed. A neighbour’s cousin tells a story dating back to 1960s’ London when she met a lady in the British Library and received a jar of small porcelain chips. From here Lalli deduces an extra-marital affair and a name for the unknown lady: Mary Westmacott. Agatha Christie.

Did Swaminathan get the idea for this story from the fact that Sir Max Mallowan married his colleague Barbara Hastings Parker a year after Christie died? The story has too many gaps and Lalli being able to tell at a glance not just that the fragments belong to an ancient civilisation but also the original form requires too large a leap of faith.

Apart from these two, Murder in Seven Acts is a crackling read. The characters are believable and the dialogues natural.

I remember my dad — a former cop himself and a huge Lalli fan — commenting wryly that he could have done with someone like her on his team. I wonder what he would have made of this one.

Murder in Seven Acts: Lalli Mysteries; Kalpana Swaminathan, Speaking Tiger, ₹499

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Printable version | May 12, 2021 5:17:46 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/murder-in-seven-acts-lalli-mysteries-by-kalpana-swaminathan-reviewed-by-r-krithika/article23523752.ece

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