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Sunday December 28, 2008

Unusual whodunnit

Instead of following along in the steps of a detective unravelling a crime, we’re given a different perspective in this simply-told but cracking good mystery.

SIX SUSPECTS
By Vikas Swarup
Publisher: DoubleDay, 472 pages
ISBN: 978-0385608169

VIKAS Swarup’s latest book, Six Suspects, looks conventional at a glance: a notorious mob tycoon, Vicky Rai, is murdered in his own house during a party, and there are six suspects. Sounds like a straightforward whodunnit, right?

Not quite. Unlike most crime novels, this novel does not employ a sleuth; well, not it in the conventional sense, anyway.

But then, Swarup is not your conventional novelist, either: he is a diplomat, currently posted in Pretoria as India’s Deputy High Commissioner to South Africa. His debut novel, Q&A, was also unusual in that its protagonist is a slum dweller who wins the jackpot on the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire TV game show. Q&A was made into a film called Slumdog Millionaire by British filmmaker Danny Boyle. The recently-released movie garnered critical acclaim and made it into Time magazine’s list of top 10 movies of the year. (Both Six Suspects and Slumdog Millionaire are available at a discount in the coupon below.)

In Six Suspects, a sleuth does initially appear, in the form of investigative journalist, Arun Advani, and it is his newspaper articles that bookend the novel. However, though it is Arun who eventually uncovers the clues that lead to the murderer, it is not his story we follow. Instead, the reader is given the stories of each of the six suspects, with each story resembling a self-contained novella, detailing their varied backgrounds, mishaps, and adventures that will eventually lead to and converge on the scene of the crime.

It is to Swarup’s credit that he has managed to imbue each of these six suspects with enough character and detail that the reader cannot help but be swept along by the narrative.

Each suspect is distinct from each other with nary a generic character in sight:

There’s Mohan Kumar, former Chief Secretary of Uttar Pradesh state in India, once corrupt and selfish, now channelling the soul of Mahatma Gandhi himself.

Shabnam Saxena, a Bollywood star who quotes French Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.

Eketi, a 1.5m tribesman from the Andaman Islands who has come to the Indian mainland to search for a sacred stone stolen from his tribe.

Munna Mobile, so nicknamed because of his career as a mobile phone thief.

Larry Page, who isn’t the famous co-founder of Google, he just shares the same name and is in India to get married

And, lastly, Jagannath Rai, father of the murdered Vicky Rai, the corrupt Uttar Pradesh Home Minister who aspires to become Chief Minister.

Of these six, the most developed and interesting character to me is Eketi, the Onge tribesman from the Andamans.

It comes as no surprise to me that in the acknowledgements at the end of the book, Swarup mentions at least three books and a website about the Onge tribe that aided him in researching the character.

Eketi’s story is perhaps the most epic of the six. It is a sort of mini coming-of-age tale, with Eketi embarking on a quest across India to recover his tribe’s sacred stone, and discovering disappointment and betrayal along the way.

He is aided by the scheming Ashok, a junior welfare officer stationed in the Andamans who has a selfish reason of his own for finding the sacred stone.

Their travels through various locales, from a eunuch colony in Kashi to the slums of Mehrauli, provide many chances for the author to give readers a tour, albeit a generalised one, of India. Some readers may appreciate this, but I suppose those familiar with the country would likely be unimpressed.

The least interesting character – though I have to say this is a novel in which even the least interesting character remains engaging – is Larry Page.

It certainly seems as if Swarup didn’t put in the same amount of research and effort into creating Larry that he did for Eketi – and what research he did do was based on episodes of the TV soap, Dallas! You see, Larry comes across as a stereotypical redneck American. While such people may exist in real life, in fiction, this simplicity in personality comes across on the page as nothing more than a two-dimensional cardboard cutout.

Even so, as trite as the character may be, Swarup’s fast-paced and easy flowing prose allows the reader to forgive this setback. Larry’s misfortunes in India – losing his passport and money, and eventually being kidnapped by a terrorist cell – thankfully, make for a delightful and humorous read, and provide yet another chance for the author to caricature India’s “exotic” elements.

Taken as a whole, Six Suspects is an enjoyable and light read. Granted, it is no literary masterpiece; in many ways it is too generalising and too stereotypical.

Don’t go in expecting a Salman Rushdie or a Vikram Seth novel. There are certainly no verbal pyrotechnics to be found, and the only glimpse of magic realism remains just that, a tiny glimpse.

But I say this not because I scorn the novel. On the contrary, I rather like the simple tone the book takes. Swarup does not seem to want to show off; there’s no putting on of airs here.

Six Suspects may lean towards being literary by being slightly unconventional but it doesn’t take a Sherlock (sorry, couldn’t resist!) to know what the author intended to write: a good mystery crime novel – and in my opinion, he’s succeeded.

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