Planet Mystery, Installment 2: India

For being the second most populous country in the world, and heirs to an English tradition that dates back well over a hundred years, India has been a bit behind the curve where mystery/suspense novels are concerned. That said, the ones that are most widely known, to a one, have been meticulously researched and finely crafted  (and also, to a one–at least the group covered here–penned by non-Indian authors; go figure).

The teeming metropolis of Bombay (nowadays Mumbai) is the setting for the three (thus far) George Sansi mysteries, the last of which was published in 1996 (and to my way of thinking, a new entry is long overdue). Sansi is a seasoned inspector on the Bombay police force, half English, half Indian, and, as such, an outsider and something of a loner. The series starts with Season of the Monsoon, in which Sansi investigates a brutal murder at the periphery of India’s huge cinema industry, colloquially known as Bollywood.

In the follow-up novel, The Ganja Coast, Sansi has retired from the Bombay police, intending to practice law. It is not to be, however, as his former boss recruits him for an undercover assignment in the nearby coastal city of Goa. Goa, once a Portuguese outpost, is well-known as a hippie backpacker destination, largely because of its look-the-other-way attitude vis-a-vis drug use. Nowadays, though, as the stakes get ever higher, greed has ramped up, and violence cannot be far behind.

The third installment of the series, The Burning Ghats, is evocative of the Bhopal chemical disaster of 1984, in which thousands of people died as a result of exposure to methyl isocyanate gas from a Union Carbide pesticide plant. In Mann’s fictionalized version, a chemical spill into the sacred Ganges River at Varanasi, killing hundreds of bathers and pilgrims, highlights the small value put on human life by avaricious industrialists. Sansi is recruited (given the circumstances, some might say “bullied”) into heading the investigation.

Fans of mystery and travel will have a hard time finding more appealing books than Paul Mann’s George Sansi series. Mr. Mann, if you’re reading this, I am itching to review your next book!

A staple of Indian suspense fiction since 1964, H.R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ganesh Ghote is perhaps the best known of all Bombay cops. Interestingly, the author did not visit India until some ten years after publication of the first Ghote book, The Perfect Murder (which won a CWA Gold Dagger Award, was nominated for an Edgar Award, and was later made into a movie by legendary filmmakers Ismail Merchant and James Ivory). Lauded as “one of the great characters of the contemporary mystery novel” by the New York Times, Ghote is the hero of some two dozen books, so if you like the first one (and I predict you will), there are plenty more to keep you busy for the foreseeable future.

The third and last entry to our Indian triumvirate is noted travel writer Paul Theroux, whose A Dead Hand: Crime in Calcutta will hit bookstores in very short order. In equal parts travelogue, mystery, and Kama Sutra manual, A Dead Hand recounts in the first person a short period in the life of Jerry Delfont, a writer at loose ends in Calcutta, inadvertently drawn into a murder investigation by an enigmatic and sensual American woman. Metaphorically plagued by a “dead hand” (writer’s block), Delfont becomes the unwilling recipient of a real-life dead hand, ratcheting up the mystery component exponentially. There is a cute vignette where Delfont gets to meet his creator, Paul Theroux, who happens to be in Calcutta at the same time. The two take an instant disliking to one another, and engage in a witty battle of one-upmanship that is likely my favorite scene in the book.

So there you have it, a glimpse into mystery novels of the sub-continent, atmospheric, steamy, and completely unfamiliar, just the thing for a chilly January evening read.

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