Book Review | Kolkata ex-cop in Brick Lane finds redemption
Deccan Chronicle.| Soumya Bhattacharya
Cover photo of 'The Cook' by Ajay Chowdhury. (Photo by arrangement)
Kamil Rahman is a disgraced former detective from Kolkata’s police headquarters, Lalbazar. With his career in ruins, he has fled from Kolkata to London, making a living as a cook in an Indian restaurant called Tandoori Knights in Brick Lane in the city’s East End. Chowdhury’s first novel featuring Rahman (the former detective was a waiter at the time), The Waiter, was named a Sunday Times crime book of the month. It also won the inaugural Harvill Secker-Bloody Scotland Crime Writing Award. The Cook is the second novel of the series. It is every bit as taut and suspenseful as its predecessor.
As much as Rahman, at the heart of the novel is a young Pakistani woman called Naila. Naila has fled her home in Pakistan to escape from an abusive husband. She is studying to be a nurse at King’s College in London. Rahman and Naila meet at Tandoori Knights. They are attracted to each other. When Salma, one of Naila’s batchmates is found murdered in her flat, the duo begin to investigate.
Parallel to this narrative runs the story of how Anjoli Chatterjee, whose parents own the restaurant, gets suspicious about a string of deaths of homeless people in the city. The police dismiss her suspicions as outlandish and fanciful. Regardless, she starts to explore if there is something untoward in the events. Like The Waiter, The Cook offers us an intricately layered narrative. In building this complex edifice of murder, intrigue and guile, Chowdhury does not put a foot wrong.
Characterisation and plotting are Chowdhury’s strengths. All the characters, even the ones who are given bit parts, live and breathe on the page. The pace rarely flags. It is always full throttle. Chowdhury grabs the reader by the scruff of the neck on the opening page. He floors the accelerator, and never lets his foot off the pedal, right until the very end.
The suspense is expertly built. Chowdhury is capable of ratcheting it up at will. As soon as you think that one situation has been resolved, one more danger has been averted, a new one is thrown at you. Twist follows twist, turn follows turn, till the reader is left breathless.
The only thing that lets Chowdhury down is his prose. It is too predictable, too full of cliches, often wooden and dull. It is as though in his desire to dial up the suspense and drive the narrative at a furious pace, Chowdhury has been unmindful of his sentences. The prose is reduced to being merely a device to hurtle the story forward. It lacks, for instance, the atmospheric, lyrical brilliance of Tana French’s detective novels set in Dublin.
Unlike Ian Rankin or Jo Nesbo, Chowdhury does not have a way with bon mots. Rahman, consequently, does not reel off the sort of terrific one-liners that Rankin’s Inspector Rebus or Nesbo’s Detective Harry Hole can. The dialogue lacks the wit, fizz and verve that we have come to associate with the best of contemporary detective fiction.
Nevertheless, the Kamil Rahman series is a welcome addition to the world of detective novels. The knottiness of the plot and the swelling, sustained suspense alone are worth the price of admission. The third book in the series is due out this year. One should not miss it.
By Ajay Chowdhury
pp. 371, Rs.499
Soumya Bhattacharya is the author of six acclaimed books of fiction, non-fiction, and memoir, the latest being the novel, Thirteen Kinds of Love.