Book Review | Naturalist’s whodunit is crisp and satisfying

The Asian Age.  | Malati Mathur

Review of 'Death in Shambles' by Stephen Alter.

Cover photo of 'Death in Shambles' by Stephen Alter. (Photo by arrangement)

A whodunit laid out in short, crisp chapters, Death In Shambles is a breezy read, pleasurable in its pitch-perfect tone and language as well as the natural-sounding register of the conversations between the various characters. Set in a quintessentially Indian ‘hill station’ where vagaries of phone lines and erratic electric supply is a given — Debrakot — the silence and placidity of the hills is shaken by mysterious and disturbing events — the twin murders at Shambala Villa, popularly referred to as Shambles, appropriately describing its general derelict condition.

Names of characters and places, locations described in the novel sound just right, as coming from someone who knows the area intimately — much in keeping with the main character, Lionel (a retired police officer living in the evocatively named Thornfield Lodge) who is approached by the local police to help solve the crime and who also narrates the events in the novel.

As the story progresses, the personality of one of the dead men, Reuben Sabharwal is slowly but surely fleshed out through descriptions given by various people who knew him in various capacities. There is a nice stirring of the pot with ingredients of scandal, an extra marital affair, sibling relationships, social bonds — some gone awry — all of which serve to offer up motives and suspects that need to patiently investigated, unraveled and ruled out.

While keeping the investigation engrossing enough, the author also manages to charm the reader with poetic images, similes and certain philosophical musings scattered throughout that shine like gems through the darkness of the events that are being depicted.

“Blood seeping from… wounds like liquid shadows”, for instance, or a police officer who has ‘learned to read the disheveled contours of unmade beds as carefully as a palmist examines the creased lines on a person’s hand”. Elsewhere, the rotund appearance of one of the characters is described as akin to “a light bulb” while an ornate glass chandelier reminds Lionel of “an octopus doing yoga”. There is also a certain worldliness that comes from age, experience and a life led as a police officer. While the main character has seen the depths to which human brutality can sink, he can be sensitive and understanding as well. “Gender can be as elastic as our imaginations allow” he feels, just as he sees, while sitting by the flames in the hearth, a purifying beauty that exists in fire, “a primal source of light and warmth that burns away the shadows in our souls”.

As the plot winds down towards the inevitable dénouement, all the jagged edges are pulled together to finally bring out a clear picture of what happened and what led to it, but not without some clever psychological manoeuvring on our protagonist’s part. The illuminating conclusion may not quite be as breathless as one may wish or have expected but is satisfying nevertheless in the sense of justice having been served.

A book that is worth a read on a lazy weekend that transports one to the salubrious environs of the hills bathed in serenity and greenery, dotted with characters that seem all too plausible and true to life.

Death in Shambles

By Stephen Alter


pp. 206, Rs.599