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Crème de la crime

Published Dec 21, 2014, 1:53 pm IST
Updated Mar 30, 2019, 5:42 am IST
As a good many authors are now exploring the bad world of crime

The famous, and fictitious, crime writer Richard Castle observed that there are two kinds of people who sit around all day thinking about killing people — serial killers and mystery writers. A good many Indian authors are now walking the dark road of crime, wielding their licence to kill and thrill. A big wave of crime fiction is sweeping through the Indian publishing industry, with a host of writers stepping inside the chilling darkness of a criminal’s mind, the deductive sharpness of a sleuth’s brain. Unraveling webs of intrigue, piecing plots of suspense. Exploring the strange seduction of crime. Racy whodunits and geo-political thrillers, cyber crime and financial crime fiction, historical and horror mysteries, techno-espionage and psychological thrillers.

“There is a huge explosion of crime writing in India, as well as a renewed interest in the genre,” says Kishwar Desai, who introduced the social worker-cum-reluctant sleuth Simran Singh in Witness the Night. The genre has gained so much momentum that in January 2015 the first Crime Writers Festival will be held in Delhi. Desai, the co-founder of the festival , says, “Acknowledg-ing that explosion, we decided to celebrate crime writing through a festival devoted to it. Crime writing usually holds a mirror to society as it is based on social issues and problems, whether of the past or present.

Whether crime writing is based on fact or fiction, it usually deals with some form of injustice, which is set right, often not through vengeful means, but usually through deduction, logic and forensic techniques.”

The new crime-busters

For long, lovers of crime fiction in India turned to Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, or searched the shelves for Edgar Allan Poe, Dorothy Sayers, Raymond Chandler, P.D. James The Indian crime fiction writer was conspicuously missing from this league.

“Historically, Indian authors writing in English have written about family, romance and what goes on in the social space. The genre of crime thriller has always been a low-key affair here,” says Juggi Bhasin, author of geo-political thrillers The Terrorist and The Avenger. “There has always been a demand for crime fiction but there weren’t many Indian writers writing original and quality stuff. The gap needed to be plugged.”

A new crop of authors who’re genuinely interested in the crime genre have seen this gap and now want to fill it up, says Shweta Taneja, author of The Ghost Hunters of Kurseong and The Skull Rosary. “They’re young, full of energy and ideas and want to write thrilling fiction. I also feel that Indian readership in what I call the pop-masala genre has increased. This readership wants entertainers, pacy reads, page-turners and stories that are completely masala-fied and desi. Both readers and authors are more comfortable in their own skin. They want to read or write books about things that they experience, in the English that they speak or write, stories that they hear from their grannies and friends. Desi crime fiction, written in desi style with desi detectives as main protagonists might be one of the reasons for this sudden rise in the genre.”

Rise of the sub-genres

Mystery, thriller and crime are best-selling genres across the globe. “It’s surprising that it has taken so long for Indian writers to join the club,” says Madhumita Bhattacharyya, author of Masala Murders and Dead in a Mumbai Minute. “The readers have become more receptive to desi crime fiction. For readers and authors, it means the same thing: more choice. And that is never a bad thing.”

Choice is the key word here, and this greater creative freedom has allowed authors to explore various branches of crime fiction. Anita Nair turned to psychological “literary noir” with Cut Like Wound, banker-turned-author Ravi Subramanian writes financial thrillers. Madhulika Liddle historical crime thrillers, Mukul Deva techno-espionage thrillers, Aditya Sudarshan legal thrillers. And these sub-genres of crime fiction are further expanding.

Shweta Taneja is experimenting with another sub-genre: detective fantasy. She explains, “A few years ago, I started binge-reading thrillers and detective stories where women are the main detectives. And I couldn’t find any such character in Indian fantasy. Anantya Tantrist, the tantric detective in my fantasy series, was born because I craved for a feisty heroine who was desi, who walked the nights fearlessly, kicking supernatural ass, spewed tantric mantras and expletives alternatively.”

Military-action thriller writer Mukul Deva adds, “Thrillers, like most other genres, have always been inspired by what is happening around us. So, with rampant political corruption and scams emerging every week, it is obvious that thrillers on this theme would be written. Likewise, an abundance of Pak-sponsored terror has given rise to thrillers based on that theme. After all, not many years ago, our western counterparts were obsessed with thrillers centered on the Cold War. So, here again, the genre is a reflection of the horrible times we live in, with rape, murder and corruption so rampant.”

The jasoosi novel

Indians have always loved a juicy crime story. Smoking guns, ticking bombs, dead bodies and cold revenge, footprints and bloodstains, red rage and dark intent, and a detective hot on the chase as the trail threatens to run cold.  The crime novel has been a favourite in Indian regional literature with Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay’s Byomkesh Bakshi and Satyajit Ray’s Feluda being two of the most famous desi private eyes. Mystery and crime with a dash of amorous love was the crux of pulp paperbacks in their heyday, in Hindi and regional languages — total paisa-vasool bestsellers loved by the middle-class, perfect for journeys and idle afternoons.

So why has it taken so long for Indian English writers to join the party? “I think it is the same problem for crime fiction that we once faced for the great Indian novel,” says Kishwar Desai. “When there is so much available crime fiction, in English, from all over the world, why would any Indian author be encouraged to write... or even attempt to write? Secondly, publishers and critics have also been discouraging towards new authors who might attempt this genre. In the regional languages, the genre has been flourishing for a long time... the jasoosi novel makes a lot of money for the author and publishers. But now slowly things are changing.”

New brigade of desi sleuths

From classics to pulp fiction, detectives are some of the most popular characters in literature. Growing on the reader with each book, giving criminals their comeuppance, standing for the victim and the truth. The pipe-smoking Holmes, Poirot and his grey cells, hard-drinking Philip Marlowe, cop-poet Adam Dalgliesh, code-busting Professor Langdon, father to 10 foster kids detective Michael Bennett

And now, the growing wave of crime fiction in India has given birth to a new brigade of desi sleuths who look set for an exciting innings of crime-solving. Be it Madhumita Bhattacharya’s private eye Reema Ray who bakes brownies to escape her case woes, or Anita Nair’s Bullet-riding and Old Monk-drinking Inspector Borei Gowda; or Kalpana Swaminathan’s Inspector Lalli, an idealistic 60-year-old retired cop; or Mukul Deva’s Ravinder Gill, head of Indian Anti-Terrorist Task Force — these sleuths are a motley group with distinct appeal and investigative styles, expertise and eccentricities, taking their story forward one crime at a time.

“When it comes to crime fiction, the protagonist is not the nucleus of the story,” says Anita Nair. “It’s more about the crime that has happened, or is happening, with only so much attention given to the protagonist. It is only over a series of books that the character becomes a real person that one can actually relate to.”
For publishers, such protagonists offer a brand to work with — something that has already been introduced to the readers, says V.K. Karthika, chief-editor and publisher of HarperCollins, who adds, “Each new book adds to the kitty and there’s so much one can do with it. One can come up with anthologies or box sets at the end of the series. It offers so many new possibilities.”

The future

While many believe Indian crime fiction promises to get bigger from here, others feel there’s still a long way to go before the Indian thriller strikes a chord with the global reader. Yudhi Raman, author of The Tantalus Redemption, says, “One area that Indian thriller writers need to improve heavily on is the developing of their characters. Indian thrillers are very good in technical aspects such as the twist in the tale, crafting of narrative, building peaks and troughs in the story but the characters have no depth. Indian writers need to spend more time developing the internal conflicts their characters face, develop their characters’ flaws and redeeming characteristics etc. so that the global reader can empathise with the character in a way that transcends cultural and geographic context. Until we can do that, appeal will always be limited by geography and culture.”



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