New Delhi: There has to be some reason why cross-genre fiction (assuming literary fiction to be a genre too) is not attempted more often by Indian writers writing in English. Perhaps it's the lack of a matured readership and in Indian writing in English we have not yet saturated the genres and the market, to start experimenting with hybrid literature. Whatever may be the facts, Anu Kumar's It Takes a Murder is a worthy exception to the genre-fidelity that we find in much of Indian writing in English today.
Set in the hill station of Brooks Town, which, though the book never says so, must be somewhere in Orissa, the story weaves itself around the lives of the narrator Charlotte Hyde and her estranged daughter Maddy, Gautam Dogra and his daughter Asha, a mystery man who sits on a boulder by the river, a tramp woman with a secret, gradually drawing into its fold more characters and finally enmeshing with important moments in the history of modern India.
The narrative picks up pace with the killing of Dogra who is found murdered in his study one afternoon. The murder weapon is missing. A suspect, the rickshaw-puller Daya, is easily found but the narrator seems to hint that a murder is rarely planned and committed in a day. It always has a backstory, its own garden of forking paths. From here one story branches off into another, one set of incidents meander back to the past another jump cuts to the future, disillusionment merges with hatred, love transforms into something dark.
Charlotte says: Love just needs the smallest encouragement, nothing else. A glimmer of hope, the possibility of a dream, will still allow love to thrive in the most arid of climates.
With its back and forth storytelling, the slow unravelling of mysteries, the sly withholding of information, the author has written a novel which while being a mystery at its core has the nuances and layered quality of literary fiction. There is more going on here.
This reviewer has had the opportunity to read two out of three works of adult fiction written by Kumar. This familiarity gives rise to certain expectations and the author doesn't let one down. It Takes a Murder even more than the book that preceded it, is written in the finest traditions of literary fiction where tone, characterisation, dialogue, diction, interiority of characters and brilliant evocation are in perfect equipoise.
There are several passages in this book that quietly evoke a sense of mystery. There is no hurry here, not a superfluous phrase or word:
The trees brushed against the window, their shadows moved against the walls, a window creaked somewhere, as did a stair, or was it a footfall? The afternoon sun slanted in through the blinds and my keys fell on the table, I could tell time had stopped.
This economy of expression, that is midway between spare and overwrought, creates the right atmosphere for the sleepy hill town where the drama of the book unfolds at its own languid place. Kumar is a master of descriptions. Her attention to detail coupled with a quiet unhurried style, creates a world rich with the succulence of the commonplace that a swashbuckling and self-important writing tends to miss out.
Yet the journey through Brooks Town and out into the wide world, back to the origins of the dispute over Kashmir, the assassination of a prime minister, the ascendancy of right wing forces and the destruction of the Babri Masjid, is not without the dark surprises and turns of plot that is a staple of the mysteries. There is quite a bit of symbolism also at play here, in the names of characters, in the story of the gold embroidered blouse of the tramp lady and more that create a layer of meaning of its own. And at the centre of all this is Dogra's murder, which connects with all the stories that Charlotte has to tell.
There are a few issues with this novel that needs to be pointed out. One is when we learn that a certain character will be dead before the end of the story. While this may evoke a certain mood and work in a certain kind of novel, in a many-stranded narrative such as this, the possibility of death, even for a minor character, could just have been foreshadowed and not made explicit. Then again, a couple of characters have been painted with too thin a brush, which is a loss to the reader because characterisation is a definite strength of this author. However, such observations in their very nature have to be subjective and it is for the reader to decide if these at all encroach on her experience.
It Takes a Murder is path-breaking fiction. Mysteries or their more popular cousin - detective fiction - have not been the subject of many experiments in this country. We seem to have been snared for too long by the world of cosy mysteries with their well arranged clues of the Agatha Christie school, a handful of amateur sleuths, a few police procedurals and the occasional attempts by a Bombay or Calcutta gumshoe to play Sam Spade with reasonable success. However this does not and should not be all that there is to the mystery genre.
Near the beginning of his seminal essay on hardboiled fiction (The Simple Art of Murder, 1950) Raymond Chandler writes, `Murder, which is a frustration of the individual and hence a frustration of the race, may have, and in fact has, a good deal of sociological implication. But it has been going on too long for it to be news. If the mystery novel is at all realistic (which it very seldom is) it is written in a certain spirit of detachment ...' Chandler, invoking the example of Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, was essentially arguing for a break (though not a genre bending break) from the cosy and contrived detective fiction towards a more realistic story which had its ears close to the ground and which was 'aware of what goes on in the world.' From Sam Spade right upto the Kinsey Millhone mysteries, hardboiled detective fiction is alive and kicking.
In the late eighties of the last century, Paul Auster made another clean break from the mystery genre with his New York Trilogy, where post modern playfulness merges with existential recit in three cerebral tales involving investigators and detection. There are still other experiments afoot and the book under review is a worthy addition to those efforts. Stepping beyond the straightforward mystery, this novel has effortlessly welded the genre with literary fiction presenting us with a fresh off the stills experiment that can only get better with time. A vibrant literary culture needs more books like this.
(Rajat Chaudhuri is a novelist and book critic based in India. Rajat can be contacted through his website: www.rajatchaudhuri.net)