“What people call morality is mostly legitimized hate.”
As regular followers of The Reading Desk may remember, a major part of my birthday book haul this year consisted of a series of detective novels by Kalpana Swaminathan, featuring Lalli, a 60 plus retiree from the Mumbai Police. I was determined not to let my grabby hands get to these books before I had finished the books already on my TBR, but they kept winking at me from my bedside, and I finally gave into temptation. I’ve read the first five books in the series, and will be reviewing them here. The sixth and latest book, Greenlight, I will review in a separate post.
The first book in the series is The Page 3 Murders. Page 3, as any Mumbaikar will tell you refers to the glitzy and glamourous society pages in the newspaper. In this book, the author takes the classic detective story trope of a country house party, and gives it a desi twist by setting it in a seaside villa in Mumbai. Bad weather isolates the house from the rest off the world, and when the bodies start piling up, it is up to Lalli to bring the murderer to justice.
Swaminathan’s characterizations are fresh and unexpected –the model is not a ditzy airhead; the award-winning writer is not in truth a great intellectual. Her treatment of human relationships and psychology is nuanced. It does take a bit of time to get the story moving, and it is only about half-way into the book that we see our first corpse. But, Swaminathan’s literary flourishes and descriptions are a pleasure to read and keep the reader engaged. The setting is Christie, but the writing and treatment reminded me of P D James. There are a bunch of co-incidences, but if we can give Christie that leeway, then why can’t we do the same for Swaminathan? By the time I was done with the book, I knew I wanted more of Lalli and Sita (Lalli’s Watson, or Hastings).
The second book, The Gardener’s Song, throws the reader into another Christie-like setting, but here it is the typical Mumbai housing colony instead of a small English village that is the stage for human malice and greed. When Mr Rao, a man who knew everyone’s secrets and was not averse to gossip dies, there is no dearth of suspects. But who among these characters was desperate enough to kill?
Any Mumbaikar will recognize someone they know in the cast of characters–it is very true to life. As always, the author manages to convincingly bring to life the human drama that stays hidden in the routine. Usage of the colloquial tongues rings true to the ear. It moves faster than the first book, beginning with the murder, then travelling back in time, taking the reader through a series of events (each a little mystery of it’s own), until we arrive again at the murder itself. The book mirrors a Lewis Carroll poem, and is an interesting literary device. This is certainly one of the books I most enjoyed in the series.
The Monochrome Madonna is a truly chilling and perplexing book. When Sita receives a call for help from a friend she hasn’t really been in touch with, she doesn’t hesitate to rush to her help. But whose is the dead body she finds there?
If I had to choose that is most unlike the others in the series, then I’d choose this one. The menace here is subtle and psychological. Misdirections abound and nothing is what it seems. Unlike the first two books, there are fewer characters here, and this lends a greater depth to each one. On the whole it is a most atmospheric read.
The quote at the beginning of this post comes from the next book in this series, I Never Knew It Was You. Of all the books, this one is my favourite, and the one I found most difficult to put down. In this, a murder in the present brings up memories of a mystery in Lalli’s past, and we get a glimpse of Lalli’s Moriarty, the mysterious Rassiwala.
It is in this book that we finally learn more about Lalli herself. The writing as always is beautiful, and the story very human. This book comes closest to reality in it’s exploration of crime and the human psyche, and the rare reader will not be moved by it.
The Secret Gardener has a similar past leading to the present sort of mystery. When a part of a 70 year old man’s skull and a mummified finger with an expensive manicure are both found in the same garden, Lalli must dig up secrets to protect the well-being of a child. While it contains all that makes a Lalli mystery special, I personally felt it was the weakest of the bunch. Not that I did not enjoy it, but I preferred the others more.
If I had to describe the series as a whole, I’d say that Swaminathan takes her detective from Conan Doyle, her settings from Christie and her style and ethos from P D James. They are all writers I have enjoyed reading and this makes these books a perfect combination for me.
If you are looking for a fast-paced , action-filled read then these are not the books you are looking for. These are for the reader who doesn’t care about the answers, but is willing to enjoy the journey. For example, in The Monochrome Madonna, the reader is suddenly pulled away from the central mystery for an entire chapter, when the narrator, Sita goes to visit her parents. The reader is treated instead to descriptions of meteorites and roses, and while others may be eager to get back to the mystery, I personally enjoyed the detour. Also, for a seasoned reader of the genre, the murderer or the solution to the crime may be obvious before the end comes, but again, even when I had guessed the who or how or why, I didn’t really care, because the writing was so good.
It is for this reason that the books in the Lalli series are the among the rare set of detective novels that I will re-read, because the truth here is not so much in the resolution of the mysteries, as much as it is in the beauty of the written word.