Whether crime pays in the long run is debatable nevertheless crime fiction can be gratifying to read especially when you’re in the hands of a writer who combines the stealth of a masterful game of che
Whether crime pays in the long run is debatable nevertheless crime fiction can be gratifying to read especially when you’re in the hands of a writer who combines the stealth of a masterful game of chess, the pacing of a well-oiled thriller, the slow fitting-into-place grace of a crossword puzzle, and the atmosphere and attention to detail of a literary novel.
There’s no question that the detective is the star of the show. While victim and villain are important, it is the detective who draws the reader into the illicit, somehow titillating world of criminality decoding its hidden secrets and presenting the grand unravelling of mystery, all the more interesting for the challenges both personal and professional encountered along the way.
Fictional detectives come in different archetypes ranging from the inspired amateur investigators like Miss Marple, the professional PI that few would fail to recognise in Sherlock Holmes, the gritty forensic specialist that the CSI TV series popularised, and then there’s Anita’s Nair’s Inspector Gowda, the dyed-in-wool police inspector who just two-books in is a noteworthy addition to the pantheon of predictable police detectives like Dalgliesh or Kojak.
Three years after the publication of Cut Like Wound, Chain of Custody establishes Inspector Gowda as a detective. It ticks off all the right boxes from the get-go in his characterisation: Gowda is a tough talking, heavy drinking, cigarette smoking, grouchy middle-aged inspector whose heart of gold and crime-solving acumen is legendary amongst admiring juniors. He won’t accept bribes or kowtow to his superiors in a way that aids promotion in the ranks, and has a complicated personal life that he further complicates with clumsy handling.
So far so formulaic and yet Anita Nair takes it all up a notch in her handling of these characteristics to make Gowda not just credible but credible enough to balance out the equation in the reader’s mind between his investigative efforts, his private challenges, and the play-out of criminality: both past action, which sets the ball rolling, and current stratagem. So that you’re in step with Gowda the whole way as he investigates the seemingly unrelated death of a high-profile lawyer and connects it to an international child trafficking ring to arrive at a dramatic exposé.
This is no easy feat and yet Nair does this and more. She combines some elements of the hardboiled crime novel in her graphic descriptions of violence and rape, and yet maintains the feel of a cosy mystery at times by presenting a socially intimate community. We learn the disturbing ways that children, despite the near-heroic efforts of patrolling units like the Bosco Rescue Unit, end up being sold to work at brick kilns, or forced into beggary and prostitution. Yet, it is Gowda’s domestic help Shanthi’s 12-year-old daughter Nandita who has fallen pretty to the crime ring.
No crime takes place in a vacuum and Nair ensures that the city emerges as a character in the novel when she delineates the unique pressures of a haphazardly urbanising and exploitative Bangalore. “Gowda sat at his desk feeling a strange restlessness gather in him. The files on his desk needed to be dealt with. Neelgubbi had changed. No one saw it more than a policeman. It wasn’t just the new high-rise apartment blocks and the arrival of fast food outlets; the gyms, and spas, the sports centre and the liquor marts — it was the nature of crime. Where once the police were called to settle a squabble between two neighbours large-scale gambling, extortion, drugs and prostitution were the new order of crime ”
It is obvious that the war on crime may be heroic but the apprehension of criminals is far from being an endgame: legislation puts criminals back on the street, foxy masterminds like the enigmatic handler Krishna brazen their way through the system, there lurks a criminal mastermind who is hidden under more layers than can be uncovered in one book, not to mention the presence of government officials on the take, besides the obviously deplorable superiors like ACP Vidyaprasad, who serves up aggressive questions like “migraine or hangover ” when reviewing reasons for Gowda’s late arrival at the station.
Nair is skilful in her depiction of Gowda’s intimate relations, and loses no opportunity to indulge in some comedy at his expense thus humanising him. A few deft strokes combining dialogue and description and we can feel his empathic goodness towards his junior Santosh who bears injuries from the line of duty, his confusion over his wife, his grope-in-the-dark style of parenting, and his embarrassed and reluctant affair with social worker Urmila. There is much that is treated with poignancy here: the shower protocol when bathing with a mistress, the comic fallout of taste-checking a son’s secret drug stash only to end up high.
A compelling read with a character at the centre who is only likely to grow more memorable with time, this offshoot of the Inspector Gowda series is as a good a place as any to get hooked to a home-grown detective who brings an authentic local flavour to the crime genre.
Karishma Attari is a Mumbai based book critic and author of I See You