Bad case of Weltschmerz? Try Indian elephants, Icelandic chills and Series 2 of The Code

Tearing your hair out over Brexit? Anxious about the US election results? Worried about the bees and climate change? If so, you may be suffering from a German malady called Weltschmerz – a sense of frustration, pain and despair at the state of the world (Welt = world; Schmerz = pain, ache, sorrow).

When Weltschmerz strikes crime fans, certain reading difficulties may arise. You may not feel in quite the right mood to tackle a social crime novel revealing further grim realities about the world, or noir crime devoid of the faintest glimmer of happiness or hope. You may instead find yourself drawn to crime that provides a refreshing antidote or escape, also known as Respite Crime.

Option 1. Comedy crime involving baby elephants

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Vaseem Khan, The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra. A Baby Ganesh Agency Investigation (Mulholland Books/Hodder, 2015)

Any crime novel that’s been called ‘utterly charming’ (The Guardian) or ‘endearing’ (The Sunday Times), would normally make me run for the hills. The same goes for crime series that use excessive whimsy (‘No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’, I’m looking at you). While The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra strays into such territory occasionally, there’s enough grit about modern-day Indian life in Mumbai to give this novel plenty of interest and depth.

The opening shows Inspector Ashwin Chopra, who’s about to retire from the police, discovering that he’s inherited an Indian elephant from his uncle Bansi. A cute, baby elephant. When Chopra investigates one last case – the suspicious death of a young man found on some waste ground – policeman and elephant form an unlikely investigative team. It’s a well-written, entertaining and satisfying read, and a funny, life-affirming antidote to Weltschmerz.

Did I mention the baby elephant? He’s really cute.

Option 2. Scare yourself witless with terrifying Icelandic crime

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Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Why Did You Lie?, trans by Victoria Cribb (Hodder and Stoughton, 2016 [2013]; a 2017 Petrona Award submission).

Or you could go completely the other way and immerse yourself in a chilling world where hapless individuals are being killed off one by one for telling lies. Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s Why Did You Lie? skilfully interweaves three narratives: that of a young policewoman whose journalist husband has recently committed suicide, a work group stranded on the Þrídrangar lighthouse as hostile Icelandic weather closes in, and a family who return after a house-swap to find their American guests are missing. The author has an impressively fertile imagination and expertly ratchets up the suspense. It’s perhaps not one to read too late at night, but is brilliant at keeping Weltschmerz at bay. You’ll simply be too terrified to think about anything else.

Þrídrangar

The Þrídrangar lighthouse

Option 3. Lose yourself in some top-quality crime drama set on the other side of the world

By happy coincidence, the second series of outstanding Australian political thriller The Code starts on BBC4 this Saturday 22 October at 9.00pm. Series 1 aired back in 2014 – you can read my post on it here.

code

Opening episode: After the events of series 1, journalist Ned Banks and his computer hacker brother Jesse face the prospect of being extradited to the US to face criminal charges. Fortunately for them, Australian National Security has an explosive case it can’t crack, and Jesse may be the man to do it. The brothers also encounter black-market king Jan Roth, and risk being drawn into his shady world. 

If those options fail, treat yourself to this lovely clip of Mike, aka the ‘Hamster of Serenity’. Here he is eating a carrot. If you turn the volume up you can hear him munching.

Author interview with Abir Mukherjee about Calcutta crime novel A Rising Man

Wishing a very happy publication day to Abir Mukherjee! Abir is the winner of the 2014 ‘Telegraph Harvill Secker Crime Writing’ competition. A Rising Man, his highly accomplished debut crime novel, is set in Calcutta in 1919 and marks the start of the ‘Captain Wyndham’ series. He joins me below for a fascinating interview about the novel, his historical research, and the writers who inspire him.

A RISING MAN

Opening lines: ‘At least he was well dressed. Black tie, tux, the works. If you’re going to get yourself killed, you may as well look your best.’

Cover text: Captain Sam Wyndham, former Scotland Yard Detective, is a new arrival to Calcutta. Desperately seeking a fresh start after his experiences during the Great War, Wyndham has been recruited to head up a new post in the police force. But with barely a moment to acclimatise to his new life, Wyndham is caught up in a murder investigation that will take him into the dark underbelly of the British Raj.

Abir Mukherjee c. Nick Tucker MAIN PHOTO

Abir Mukherjee (photo by Nick Tucker)

Mrs. Peabody: Abir, thanks very much for joining me. A Rising Man is set in the India of 1919, just after the end of the First World War. Why did you choose that particular historical moment for the start of your series?

Abir: My parents came to Britain as immigrants from India in the sixties, and my life has always been shaped by both cultures. As such I’ve always been interested in the period of British Rule in India. I think that period in history has contributed so much to modern India and to modern Britain, but it’s a period that’s been largely forgotten or mischaracterised, either romanticised or brushed under the carpet.

I’ve always been rather surprised by this and wanted to look at it from the point of view of an outsider who’s new to it all. One of the things that’s always fascinated me is that, in an era when totalitarian regimes were rampant in Europe, regularly murdering anyone who showed any dissent, in India, this largely peaceful freedom struggle was playing out between Indians and their British overlords. At the time, there was no parallel to this anywhere in the world, and I think it says a lot about the people of both nations that such a struggle could be played out in an comparatively civilised way.

Huntley and Palmer Raj

A thoroughly British depiction of the Indian Raj

Abir: I also wanted to explore the effect of empire on both the rulers and the ruled. In particular I wanted to understand what happens when a democratic nation subjugates another, both in terms of the impact on the subjugated peoples, but just as importantly, on the psyche of the people doing the oppressing. I think the moral and psychological pressures placed on those tasked with administering the colonial system were immense and in something that’s been relatively unexamined.

I wanted to write a series exploring the relationships between these two different, but in many ways very similar cultures, but from the viewpoint of someone new to it all and 1919 just felt like the right place to start. To me, it was the start of the modern age. The Great War had just ended, it had destroyed a lot of the old certainties and left a lot of people disillusioned and no longer willing to simply accept what they were told by their betters. Sam, the protagonist, is a product of that time and I think he is one of the first modern men.

Calcutta map

Kolkata/Calcutta lies in the east of India on the Bay of Bengal

Mrs. Peabody: How did you go about recreating the Calcutta of the time? What kind of research did you carry out?

Abir: In the period that the book is set, Calcutta was still the premier city in Asia and was as glamorous and exotic a location as anywhere in the world. At the same time, it was a city undergoing immense change and was the centre of the freedom movement, a hotbed of agitation against British rule. It seemed the natural choice for the series I wanted to write. Of course, it helped that my parents are both from Calcutta and I’d spent a quite a bit of time there over the years. I even speak the language, though with a Scottish accent.

In terms of recreating the Calcutta of the period, it’s amazing how much of that history is still around in the Calcutta (or Kolkata) of today. Calcuttans have a great sense of the history of their city, possibly because the city was at its zenith during that period, and so many people were more than willing to answer the many questions I had.

During one visit, I was lucky enough to be granted access to the Calcutta Police Museum where a lot of the police documents from the period are on exhibit. That was fascinating as the Kolkata Police today has a rather ambivalent view of its own history during that time. In terms of research though, most of that was done sitting at home in front of the computer and trawling the internet.

Mrs. Peabody: Tell us a bit about your leading investigator, Captain Sam Wyndham, and the perspective he offers us of India.

Abir: Sam’s a rather strange fish. He’s an ex-Scotland Yard detective who’s basically spent his whole life struggling against the tide. Life’s not exactly been kind to him. He gets packed off to boarding school at a young age and some of his best years were spent sitting in a trench in France getting shot at by Germans. He survives the war, though only to find that his wife has died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. Scarred by his wartime experiences and burdened by survivor’s guilt, he comes to India mainly because he has no better alternative.

At the point in his life where he arrives in Calcutta, he’s a pretty jaded soul with a bit of an alcohol and chemical dependency, though he’d tell you he used them for medicinal purposes. He’s been disillusioned by the war and I think he’s more open to seeing India with his own eyes than swallowing everything he’s told. He’s happy to point out hypocrisy where he sees it, whether it be from the whites or the natives.

Mrs Peabody: The novel does a wonderful job of dissecting the political, racial and social tensions of life under the British Raj. Do you think that crime fiction offers particular opportunities in this respect?

Abir: Definitely.

I think most authors have something to say beyond the telling of a good story and I think crime fiction is a wonderful vehicle for exploring deeper societal issues, because it allows you to look at all of society from the top to the bottom.

As Ian Rankin said in an interview earlier this year, “the crime novel is a good way of raising this stuff because … a detective has an access all areas pass to the entire city, to its riches and deprivations.”

In terms of India in 1919, as a white policeman, Sam has is exposed to all sections of Calcutta society, from the politicians and businessmen right down to the rickshaw-wallahs and brothel keepers. He’s part of the whole fabric, but at the same time separate from it and able to see it objectively.

Kolkata flower market

Kolkata flower market. Image Courtesy of Parasarathi Mukherjee, Walks in Kolkata

Mrs Peabody: Which authors/works have inspired you as a writer?

Abir: There are so many.

There are the books which have left the greatest impression on me and which I’ve read quite a few times. At the top of that list would come George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. I’ve always been drawn to dystopian views of the future and this is, in my opinion, the finest dystopian novel. I’ve read this book more times than I can remember and it’s a joy every time. The characterization of Winston and Julia’s relationship, set against the backdrop of this all-powerful totalitarian society is just fantastic.

Lahiri

Abir: Other works that have left an impression include Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, a story about the travails of a Bengali couple who immigrate from Calcutta to Boston and raise a family. My wife first introduced me to this book and I was just bowled over by it. The writing is sublime and I could relate to it in a way I haven’t with many other books.

Then there are others which are pretty special, like Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music, a tale of love lost set in the world of string quartets, Kafka’s The Trial – the only book I’ve read that made me feel claustrophobic, and Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls with its amazing use of language.

In terms of crime and thrillers, there are a number of authors whose work I look out for and will buy as soon as it hits the shelf. Top of this list has to be Ian Rankin – I’m a huge Rebus fan, but also love the standalone novels too. Then there’s Philip Kerr, Martin Cruz Smith and Robert Harris, all three of whom produce novels shot through with wit and an intelligence, something which I love.

Finally, and in a special category, there’s William McIlvanney, whose Glasgow Detective, Laidlaw is a fantastic creation. I think McIlvanney was a true genius. I wish I’d had the chance to meet him.

Mrs P: Many thanks, Abir!

A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee is published by Harvill Secker on 5 May 2016 (priced £12.99). And here’s an interesting Telegraph article in which Abir gives some tips on writing.

A Rising Man blog tour poster

 

#47 Anita Nair’s A Cut-like Wound (India)

Anita Nair, A Cut-like Wound (London, Bitter Lemon Press, 2014 [2012]). Set in Bangalore, this crime novel introduces readers to Inspector Borei Gowda and provides a rare insight into the world of the hijra. 3.5 stars

Nair Wound

Opening lines: It wasn’t the first time. But it always felt like the first time as he stood in front of the mirror, uncertain, undecided, on the brink of something monumental. On the bare marble counter was a make-up kit.

There’s been so much wonderful TV crime drama to report on that I’m a bit behind on my book reviews. So it’s time to explore a crime novel by Anita Nair, an extremely versatile Indian writer known for her novels, essays, children’s fiction, poetry and travelogues. A Cut-like Wound, published by Bitter Lemon Press in 2014, two years after its original publication, is her first foray into crime.

A Cut-like Wound is set in present-day Bangalore (also known as Bengaluru) in India’s southern Karnataka state, and skilfully evokes the heat and dust of this crowded city. Inspector Borei Gowda, the novel’s main investigator, is an engaging creation: in the throes of a mid-life crisis, with a stalling career and a lacklustre marriage, we see him pondering his future in the face of temptation from old flame Urmila, who’s just resurfaced in his life. His struggles with workplace power dynamics as he tries to solve a series of brutal murders are also well drawn.

Like all good international crime fiction, A Cut-Like Wound provides readers with the opportunity to learn about a different culture and society. The novel provides a rounded picture of Bangalore and depicts the lives of citizens from a range of social and economic backgrounds. There’s also an intriguing insight into the city’s minority community of hijra (transgender individuals and eunuchs), who occupy an ambiguous space in Indian society: often depicted in comic supporting roles in Indian cinema, they’re also frequently the victims of real life prejudice and violence. In 2014, in a major group victory, the Indian supreme court awarded hijra the right to select a ‘third gender’ category on official documents, giving them legal visibility at last.  

FHI BANGLADESH

A group of Hijra in Bangladesh. Credit: USAID Bangladesh

Less convincing for me was the depiction of the murderer within the novel. The motivation for the killings didn’t ring completely true, even though I could see the psychological rationale the author was trying to employ. This weakness and a slight unevenness in narrative tone leads me to give A Cut-like Wound a rating of 3.5 stars. 

If you’re interested in finding out more about Indian crime fiction, take a look at the following:

And on its way in 2016: the winner of the 2014 Harvill Secker Daily Telegraph crime writing competition, Abir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man. This novel is set in 1919 Calcutta and shows British policeman Captain Sam Wyndham investigating the politically sensitive murder of a senior government official against the backdrop of the ‘quit India’ movement. I’ve had an advance copy, and am enjoying this hugely assured debut very much. The Wyndham series and its author are definitely ones to watch.  

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Globetrotting crime: Auckland, Bangalore, Barcelona, Havana

Family Peabody is off on holiday in a cunning attempt to extend summer a little longer. As ever, my first priority has been choosing which books to take along. And by books, I mean actual books to read while lying by the pool/sipping a drink on the balcony/ enjoying a coffee in a cafe. Time to savour a break from the electronic world and wind down in seventies style.

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Here are four novels that have made the cut. All happen to be published by Bitter Lemon Press, which champions top quality crime fiction from all over the world. I made my choices on the basis of the cover blurb (see below), the setting, and that tingly feeling that makes you think you’ll enjoy a book. As a result, some are from the middle or even the end of a series, but that’s fine…

AUCKLAND/NEW ZEALAND: Death on Demand by Paul Thomas (Bitter Lemon Press 2013 [2012])

Death on demand

Maori cop Tito Ihaka – ‘unkempt, overweight, intemperate, unruly, unorthodox and profane’ – is a cop unable to play the police politics necessary for promotion, but a man who has a way with women, and he’s a stubborn investigator with an uncanny instinct for the truth. Ihaka is in the wilderness, having fallen foul of the new regime at Auckland Central. Called back to follow up a strange twist in the unsolved case that got him into trouble in the first place, Ihaka finds himself hunting a shadowy hitman who could have several notches on his belt. His enemies want him off the case, but the bodies are piling up. Ihaka embarks on a quest to establish whether police corruption was behind the shooting of an undercover cop and – to complicate matters – he becomes involved with an enigmatic female suspect who could hold the key to everything.

An extract from Death on Demand is available on the Bitter Lemon website.

BANGALORE/INDIA: A Cut-like Wound by Anita Nair (Bitter Lemon Press, 2014 [2012]

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It’s the first day of Ramadan in heat-soaked Bangalore. A young man begins to dress: makeup, a sari and expensive pearl earrings. Before the mirror he is transformed into Bhuvana. She is a hijra, a transgender seeking love in the bazaars of the city. What Bhuvana wants, she nearly gets: a passing man is attracted to this elusive young woman. But someone points out that Bhuvana is no woman. For that, the interloper’s throat is cut. A case for Inspector Borei Gowda, going to seed and at odds with those around him including his wife, his colleagues, even the informers he must deal with. More corpses and Urmila, Gowda’s ex-flame, are added to this spicy concoction of a mystery novel.

Read an extract from A Cut-like Wound here.

BARCELONA/SPAIN: A Shortcut to Paradise by Teresa Solana (translated by Peter Bush, Bitter Lemon Press, 2011 [2007)

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The shady, accident-prone private detective twins Eduard Martinez and Borja ‘Pep’ Masdeu are back. Another murder beckons, and this time the victim is one of Barcelona’s literary glitterati.

Marina Dolç, media figure and writer of best-sellers, is murdered in the Ritz Hotel in Barcelona on the night she wins an important literary prize. The killer has battered her to death with the trophy she has just won, an end identical to that of the heroine in her prize-winning novel. The same night the Catalan police arrest their chief suspect, Amadeu Cabestany, runner-up for the prize. Borja and Eduard are hired to prove his innocence. The unlikely duo is plunged into the murky waters of the Barcelona publishing scene and need all their wit and skills of improvisation to solve this case of truncated literary lives.

Read an extract from A Shortcut to Paradise here.

HAVANA/CUBA: Leonardo Padura, Havana Fever (translated by Peter Bush, Bitter Lemon Press, 2009 [2005]

havana

Havana, 2003, fourteen years since Mario Conde retired from the police force and much has changed in Cuba. He now makes a living trading in antique books bought from families selling off their libraries in order to survive. In the house of Alcides de Montes de Oca, a rich Cuban who fled after the fall of Batista, Conde discovers an extraordinary book collection and, buried therein, a newspaper article about Violeta del Rio, a beautiful bolero singer of the 1950s, who disappeared mysteriously. Conde’s intuition sets him off on an investigation that leads him into a darker Cuba, now flooded with dollars, populated by pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers and other hunters of the night. But this novel also allows Padura to evoke the Havana of Batista, the city of a hundred night clubs where Marlon Brando and Josephine Baker listened to boleros, mambos and jazz. Probably Padura’s best book, Havana Fever is many things: a suspenseful crime novel, a cruel family saga and an ode to literature and his beloved, ravaged island.

An extract from Havana Fever is available here.

Happy reading! Mrs. Peabody will be back in a couple of weeks. 

#16 Vikas Swarup / Six Suspects

Vikas Swarup, Six Suspects (London: Black Swan 2008). The crime novel as vehicle for a darkly humorous and highly critical portrait of modern India. 3.5 stars

 Opening sentence:  Not all deaths are equal. There’s a caste system even in murder.

For the first time this blog travels to India, as part of a concerted effort to broaden its transnational criminal horizons.

Six Suspects is the second literary offering of Vikas Swarup, who hit the international jackpot when his highly-praised first novel, Q&A, was adapted for film as the phenomenally successful Slumdog Millionaire (8 Oskars and numerous other accolades). Not bad for a book that was written in a mere two months.

Six Suspects is a rather unusual crime novel. While drawing heavily on the conventions of classic detective fiction (there is a murder, a drawing room of sorts, and the eponymous set of suspects), Swarup uses the genre primarily for satirical purposes, providing the reader with a darkly humorous and often scathing critique of modern India. The suspects – a bureaucrat, a Bollywood actress, a thief, a politician, an American tourist and a tribesman from the Andaman Islands – are selected for the spectrum of perspectives they offer on contemporary Indian society, and allow Swarup to explore his key themes of political corruption, power and class in an uncompromising fashion (pretty daring given his day job as a member of the Indian civil service; currently Consul-General of India in Osaka-Kobe, Japan). Much of the novel is taken up with tracing the life stories of the suspects and the motives that they might have had for killing Vivek ‘Vicky’ Rai, a disreputable thirty-two-year-old businessman and playboy, who also happens to be the son of the powerful Home Minister of Uttar Pradesh. In contrast, relatively little emphasis is placed upon the process of investigation: the role of detective is played in part by Arun Advani, a journalist renowned for exposing corruption and injustice, but he only features significantly at the beginning and the end of this chunky 557-page text.

I found Six Suspects very enjoyable in a number of respects. As someone who has visited India in the past, the novel’s evocative descriptions of the sights and sounds of everyday life, and the huge disjunction between rich and poor rang very true. The novel also travels widely around India, beginning and ending in Delhi, but taking in other locations such as Srinagar, Jaisalmer, Varanasi, Kolkata and the Andaman Islands on the way (the latter are a remote and very beautiful group of islands in the Bay of Bengal that ‘belong’ politically to India, and which are home to ethnic tribes such as the Onges and Jarawa). The novel thus takes readers on a wide-ranging geographical and cultural journey which will be highly rewarding for those with an interest in India.

Courtesy of lonelyplanet.com

Another hugely enjoyable aspect of the novel is its biting satirical humour, and its witty nod to Salman Rushdie and magical realism (I particularly liked the possession of a grumpy, philandering ex-politician by the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi).

On the minus side, I felt the novel was a bit overlong and that its depiction of some characters and incidents was too exaggerated to be effective in the larger context of Swarup’s satire. As a result, the narrative felt rather uneven at times, and while I remained admiring of the author’s ambitious use of the crime genre to create a satirical portrait of India, I wasn’t sure that he’d completely succeeded in his aim when I closed the book for the final time.

I discovered Six Suspects at our city library, which has a superlative collection of crime fiction. If you’d like to read an extract from the novel, you can do so here on the author’s website.

Mrs Peabody awards Six Suspects 3.5 stars for its biting humour and its ambitious, if slightly uneven use of the crime novel as satire.

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