The Ambassador and the Private Eye, published earlier this year, is the sixth Michael Marco novel by Krishnan Srinivasan. From the pen of a former Indian foreign secretary, one would rather naturally expect the protagonist of a detective story to be a foreign national. What’s surprising is Srinivasan’s deliberately deglamourised characterisation of the man who, on the face of it, is most unbecoming of a sleuth. The very antithesis of a flamboyant, young, fair-haired diplomat who uses the cover of a foreign office posting to uncover webs of grave international intrigue, Michael Marco is a retired ambassador of Somalian provenance, elderly and elliptic, physically and politically well past his halcyon days. He spends his days in his rooms and dining lounge of a middling south Kolkata hotel, waiting for an NGO, sponsored by his benefactor, to commence operations, providing him a ticket back home, and a reason to once again play a part in the life of the community in Somalia.
Enter into the picture, Koel Deb — known to close friends as Minnie — who breaks the dull tedium of his time in Kolkata. A markedly sharp, educated, dedicated police-officer, her promising Kiran-Bedi-in-the-making career is cut short abruptly, when, during a Rapid Action Force operation finds a chance bullet hit her arm, leading to an amputation. Undaunted by this setback that would fell many a lesser mortal, Koel quits the force, swiftly tiring of a desk-job that she has been eased into, and reinvents herself as Kolkata’s only professional female private detective, her Glock 17 pistol always at the ready. This unlikely duo typically meets, not in the vesper hours of some forbidden, sewer-stenched, crime-ridden underbelly of the metropolis, but in the dining room of the Wise Owl hotel, Marco’s temporary residence, the retired diplomat gazing, listening with rapt attention, over uneaten breakfasts and coffee growing cold, as Koel discusses the details of her latest assignment. The novel plays out in a sequence of episodic chapters, each dealing with a separate case.
From the theft of a precious necklace to a contentious property matter, a sham kidnapping to prevent the occurrence of one with serious intent, the murder of a local goon in the backwoods of a Bodo-infested district — these are the sort of cases one comes across in TV and newspaper bulletins, with fair regularity. And it is precisely the quotidian, non-sensational nature of these cases, and the manner in which they are investigated, that make them so completely believable.
Much of the action takes place off-page, filtering through Koel’s recounting of them, soon after the fact. The locales are the streets and cafes in Kolkata, the back-wings of a Tollywood set, the well-spaced but dusty and dossier-lined offices of law firms and businessmen. There are no cliff-hangers, no exotic luxury-liner cruises. On the rare occasion when an assignment takes Koel outside Kolkata, she flies to Cooch Behar on Bengal Airlines, a new private airline catering to less popular destinations, an airline that one suspects, sees no reason to equip its meagre aircrafts with the comforts of a business class.
Michael Marco is a creation in a minor key, a sort of post-modern Smiley, patently unremarkable in every aspect except the sharpness of his mind, keenly observant but unassuming, perpetually apologising, a man so attuned to the fickle vagaries of prominence, followed by long stretches of disappointment and obscurity that he is no longer capable of being disillusioned. The fire in the man that Marco once was may have gone out, but the embers remain. A hint of his true metier comes out when Marco solves cases with an absolute surgical precision, without having to leave his tepid sanctuary at the hotel. The pace is sedate and Marco’s work solely cerebral, eschewing the typical adrenaline-rush physicality that accompanies most thrillers. The one that caught this reviewer’s attention the most was an instance where he deconstructs the message of a cross-border conflict hidden in the depths of a cipher containing a Shakespearean allusion.
On finishing the book, one wishes there was an instance or two, when, intrigued by the complete lack of clues or the contradictoriness of evidence, Marco is compelled to take active part in the investigations, examining the scene of a crime, interviewing witnesses and suspects, and perhaps, like Koel Deb, even exposing himself to imminent danger. That said, for readers who’d prefer pondering the subtleties of a crossword puzzle over a leisurely Sunday morning tea to the glut of overwhelmingly paced news, blogs and stories, Srinivasan’s book makes for an engaging and enjoyable companion.
Avik Chanda is an entrepreneur, columnist and bestselling author of Dara Shukoh: The Man Who Would Be King
The Ambassador and the Private Eye
By Krishnan Srinivasan
Har Anand Publications
pp. 285, Rs.695