Why, how, whodunit?


TOP OF THE HEAP From the time of Agatha Christie till now, there has been a legacy of women crime fiction writers

TOP OF THE HEAP From the time of Agatha Christie till now, there has been a legacy of women crime fiction writers  

Writer stabs publisher and leaves body on bookshop floor. Corpse has note pinned to it reading: "The market is god." It wouldn't be such a bad idea for a murder mystery. If it were written in the classic whodunit format you wouldn't know who killed her, of course. The plot would be strewn with red herrings. The key suspect would be a frustrated playwright whose manuscript the publisher had rejected on the grounds that it wouldn't sell.

Ghoulish thoughts sprang to mind as one listened to the heated debate on The Gentle Art of Murder at the Oxford Bookstore in Leela Palace in Bangalore on Monday evening. Passions were stoked, but fortunately, no lives were claimed. Raj Ayyar of the Centre for American Education, who chaired the discussion and had chosen the topic, said that when he invited people for the event, most reacted sharply to the title. They asked him how something as sordid as murder could be called a gentle art.

Obviously, it wasn't murder itself that was the gentle art but the manner in which mystery writers portrayed it. Raj Ayyar called the murder mystery a "cosy space" that was a "refuge from real-life horror". Publisher Jamuna Rao went one step further and called it "a mathematical puzzle", something like sudoku, which was delinked from blood, gore, emotion and morality. Delinked from morality? Writer Shashi Deshpande immediately disagreed. "Murder is not a gentle art. I think they're moral tales. They're about good versus evil."

This became the bone of contention for the rest of the evening. The participants appeared to be talking at cross-purposes, for they were each referring to different, overlapping genres. Shashi pointed out that there was a difference between detective novels, crime fiction and murder mysteries. Jamuna was talking about the whodunit, the Sherlock Holmes kind of exercise in deductive logic where character was secondary to plot and suspense. Shashi, on the other hand, was focussing on crime fiction, especially modern crime fiction, which had moved on from the whodunit mode to the whydunit and howdunit. There was no surprise ending and the reader knew who the murderer was from the word go. The hows and whys of the crime were explored and so were the characters.

"Personally I am not interested in deduction. I'm more interested in the murderer," Shashi stated. Reminding the audience that "there is a bit of evil in us all", she said she found it "fascinating" to look into the mind of someone who breaks the rules that society lives by. The modern crime novel had fleshed-out characters, whether that of the criminal or the detective. "Detectives are real people and not just created for the sake of solving a mystery." The detective's sidekick had vanished, too. "He became a parody," said Shashi. "Nowadays, detectives are lone hunters." Many of them are women, strong women who solved mysteries on their own. Feminism has entered crime fiction."

The other changes that Shashi observed in today's crime fiction was that murders had become more "gruesome, vicious and senseless". And technology, rather than the little grey cells, was used to solve crime. But a trend that had continued was the persistence of women crime writers. She mentioned her own favourites such as Sue Grafton and P.D. James. "I take crime writing seriously." She found it regrettable that a marvellous writer like P.D. James was not taken seriously as a writer, and would never win the Booker merely because she was slotted as a detective writer.

The murder mystery may not have been considered as "literature" but it has always been a hugely popular genre because, as Jamuna put it, "there is a find-outer in all of us". However, very few Indian writers in English had attempted it. When Raj Ayyar asked the panellists why no IWEs wrote mystery novels, they were truly foxed. A member of the audience, though, came up with an ingenious possible explanation. Could it be "our ambivalence towards the law and the police"?

The mystery remains.

A murder for real

In all the talk about fictional murders, a participant in the discussion brought up a real-life one — the recent rape and killing of the Bangalore call centre employee. He wanted to know if her murder was destined. After all, two other women had narrowly escaped being murdered by the same criminal that very night.

Shashi Deshpande said that if she were writing this as a story, she would definitely say that fate had chosen her. But calling it destiny by no means excused the action or condoned the murder.

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