THE UMBRELLA MAN by JAKE NEEDHAM

Having developed a bit of an infatuation with Inspector Samuel Tay, right from the moment I encountered him in “The Ambassador’s Wife”, I am happy to announce that he is still every bit my hero/anti-hero in the second of what one hopes will be an endless series of crime whodunnits.

Just like the first Inspector Tay novel, “The Umbrella Man” starts out with a bang, plunging the reader straight into the action. This time, however, the bang isn’t just  a metaphor.  Singapore explodes, as a series of bombs rips the heart out of Orchard Road.  The descriptions of the terror and destruction of one of the world’s major shopping streets is chilling.

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Sometimes, where you are physically when you read a book, or write down your thoughts (like here, in this review) does impact you.  So the fact that I am writing this while my daughter tells me from her carphone that there are bomb threats in Delhi, as she drives home through lunatic traffic, only made these scenes of the book even more frightening.

Mr. Needham skilfully weaves fact and fiction together, putting his fictional characters in real life Singaporean locations.  When he talks of  Ngee Ann City, one knows exactly where the drama is taking place.  The corner of Scott and Orchard Road, and the poor Marriott hotel, which featured so unflatteringly in the opening scene of “The Ambassador’s Wife”, bear the brunt of the explosions.  But who would do this?  Who would attack Singapore?  What had this tiny country done to “deserve” such an attack?

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The heart is ripped out of the tiny island state, and Inspector Tay is eager to be part of the team investigating this unprecedented horror.  But his previous run in with the Americans in “The Ambassador’s Wife” means that he is off the team.  The Americans bring pressure to bear and the Singaporeans bow to them, and Inspector Tay of the CID is sidelined.  And is furious.

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Never a big fan of the Americans at the best of times, this situation only inflames his temper and Grumpy-Old-Man-ism:

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He sulks, he mooches around, his poor Sergeant bears the brunt of his temper :

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And of course he thinks and smokes and thinks some more and smokes a lot more and…but I am not going to spoil the plot, never fear.

Themes that began in the first book are continued here –  his dislike for the Americans for example.  His love of smoking, which is such a no-no in Singapore that he takes a positive pleasure in smoking wherever and whenever he can.  It is a testimony to Mr. Needham’s writing and to Inspector Tay’s brilliantly grumpy nature, that even though I hate smoking, I secretly cheer each time Sam lights up where he isn’t supposed to, or drops a butt where is is forbidden.

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And it is this instinctive bridling against authority that leads to one of the dilemmas/controversies/call it what you will/ surrounding this book.

Basically, the powers that be in Singapore were a tad under-whelmed by the portrayal of their country in Mr. Needham’s first Inspector Tay book, and so this second novel was never published there.  Here, read the author’s own words on the subject –  he explains it way better.

Mr. Needham clearly knows Singapore and Singaporeans in great depth, and is not shy about speaking his mind.  Well, Inspector Tay’s mind :

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Another great story.

Sam Tay is way up there with my favourite literary men.

And I can’t wait for the next book.

Enthusiastically recommended, and if you feel so inlined, you can order the book right now, by clicking on one of the links below:

MATABELE DAWN by SAAD BIN JUNG

Saad bin Jung, the author of the recently published “Matabele Dawn” is a friend, a state of affairs that can sometimes make reviewing a book a rather tricky exercise. Treading the fine line between friendship and truth.  That kind of dilemma.

No such dilemma here.

Saad is a well known, shout-it-from-the-rooftops lover of Africa, and the bush, and wildlife, and the great outdoors.

Since we left South Africa nine oh-so-long years ago, there hasn’t been a day when I didn’t pine for the bush, or for the excitement of being on safari.  So the wonderful depiction of Africa that is the Matabele half of this book resonated completely.  Loved it.  Saad’s descriptions bring Africa to vivid life:

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In his book, Mr. bin Jung has two narratives, of Africa and India, that are generations apart, yet intertwined.

Both stories are also partly “out of Africa” and “out of India” in that they are stories of children of mixed marriages, and of mixed faiths, of foreigners living and loving and dying in different continents, far from their home.  Two men are born, decades apart, into chaos and disorder, into worlds of danger and change, and it is the chronicle of their lives that is “Matabele Dawn.”

Initially, I was a little startled by the very modern speaking voice of some of Mr. bin Jung’s 19th century characters, but then I thought – what is preferable?  Modern vernacular or a flood of “forsooths and by gads.”

Enjoy this book for the vividness of the language and story, for the enthusiasm and obvious love for two continents that poor forth.

When Mr. bin Jung launched his book this week in Delhi (where I live) the occasion was exactly as one would have expected. Roars of laughter at the stories told by the chief guests (All 3 of them.  Well, why ever not have 3 chief guests if you can?).  Not a moment of pompousness. Just laughter and a love for life.

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The author’s dedication in my book says it all:

“Here’s hoping you enjoy reading this half as much as I enjoyed writing it.”

Published by Rumour books, “Matabele Dawn” costs Rs599 and you can order it right now, by clicking on the link below :

And here is the link to buy the Kindle version :

The Ambassador’s Wife by Jake Needham

I might just have a bit of a crush on Inspector Samuel Tay, of the Singapore CID.

Not because he’s tall dark and handsome, or any of that clichéd nonsense.

On the contrary, Inspector Tay is a slightly overweight, late-middle-aged smoker, and  – if the truth be known –  probably Singapore’s home grown version of a Grumpy Old Man.  Hates mobile phones.  Hates immediate familiarity.  Bit of a Luddite, if the truth be known.  But he makes me laugh out loud as he stomps around his island state, and that is a wonderful thing, to smile and laugh as you read.

So, yes. I am already a huge Inspector Tay fan after reading the first in what I hope will be an endless series of novels.

The Inspector grumbles a lot – about not being able to smoke, about technology he doesn’t understand, about the ruthless razing of the old Singapore and the imposition of a sanitised version, about how boring this pristine little city state it…it’s just that he doesn’t grumble out loud too much, since he hardly talks to anyone.  Being a bit of a loner, you understand.  So he just grumbles to us, the complicit reader.

Sam Tay has all the makings of a brilliant hero – almost an anti-hero in fact –  since he can’t shoot to save his life, doesn’t think much of most of his colleagues, loathes most Americans, is inarticulate around women…yup, a regular grumpy old man.  And what a fabulous character he is.

The ever inventive creator of Inspector Tay, the oh-so-clever Jake Needham, has written a marvellous whodunnit, but with lots of twists.

I love the way Mr. Needham seamlessly blends fact and fiction.  His fictional detectives and diplomats and victims inhabit the real identifiable world of Singapore, and despite his jibes at the expense of the Lion City, it’s clear that Mr. Needham knows the city like the back of his hand.  Sam wanders in and out of bookshops and coffee shops and the subway and the 5 star hotels, all of which exist for real, and he lives in Emerald Hill, which is real, and as I read the book, I realised that on my next trip to Singapore I shall probably laugh out loud when I see the Marriott, the scene of a horrific crime in the opening pages of the novel :

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Obviously I then googled the Marriott (which I thought I had remembered correctly, and I had) and voila, here it is:

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And of all the curious things –  out of all the dozens of images online for the Marriott, the one I chose (above) was, without realising it, from Jake Needham’s blog – coincidence, coincidence.  Naturally, I then read the newsletter, and what fun it is too.  Since Mr. Needham explains his story way better than I can ever do, here you go, the link to a very wry piece of writing about the locales used in the book.  Good fun.

Yes, you’re right.  Back to the book.

A woman has been brutally murdered  –  very, very brutally murdered and disfigured –  and it will come as no surprise to you that Sam Tay is squeamish and hates the sight of blood.  What a man.

I am not going to spoil the plot of this great book, obviously.

It’s a fascinating whodunnit.

And even more than that, perhaps, it’s an amazing insight into whatever still remains of the heart and soul of Singapore, through the jaundiced eyes of Sam Tay, who is all set to become my favourite detective as he grumbles and cusses his way through Singapore, smoking where he’s not allowed to, deliberately dropping his cigarette butts on the ground, battling technology as well as murder, kicking against the system…

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Anyway, enough from me.

Read this book and meet the best Grumpy Old man in Asia.

You can buy the book right now by clicking on the link below.  Couldn’t be easier.

 

 

VILLANELLE : HOLLOWPOINT by LUKE JENNINGS

Mr. Jennings and his clever writing and gripping story lines is my new brilliant new discovery this week, and as I finish the 3rd novel of his in a row, I can’t wait for the next one.

“Villanelle : Hollowpoint” is a Kindle single, and having also just discovered this e-novella format, I am chomping at the bit for the next instalment in the Villanelle series.

Because there is clearly going to be a third book, right?  Otherwise, what on earth would have been the point of introducing us to Eve Polastri of MI5?  The arch nemesis of the racy Villanelle, if ever I saw one.

Eve is a good woman, a thorough professional, whose career gets sideswiped when…oh, but I can’t tell you exactly what derails Eve’s career, because that would be a total plot spoiler, and that is one thing you don’t want with these novellas.

This story isn’t as exclusively about the psychopathic killing machine called Villanelle as the first book in the series, and the beautiful Russian now shares the storyline with the not so glamorous (in fact not remotely glamorous) Eve, who is married to a maths teacher.  They live in a small, messy flat and they play bridge at the local club in the evenings.  Nothing could be further from the jet-setting, expensive, luxurious, lethal world of Villanelle.

Eve is the antithesis of Villanelle in so many ways –  clothes, home, family life – but when it comes to work, they are both focused and dedicated professionals and I can foresee many delicious books on the horizon, pitting these 2 formidable women against each other.

What I enjoy about Villanelle is that she is robotic and ruthless and kills to order, but you don’t in any way dislike her.  Her effortless cool and glamour and cleverness ensure that.  She kills on the orders of a shadowy organisation that requires certain people whom they consider to be troublesome to be eliminated, and the beautiful Villanelle is a professional killing machine and she does her job, never stopping to query the ethics or the rights and wrongs of her work.  Actually, neither did I, very much.

A gripping story.  Well written.  Fast paced.  Two great female characters.

What’s not to love?

 Thoroughly recommended, and you can buy it here, right now.

Codename Villanelle by Luke Jennings

Having just this week discovered the wonderful writer Luke Jennings, I have also discovered something called a Kindle single.

Mr. Jennings has published 2 Kindle Singles, and I read “Codename Villanelle” in one Sunday afternoon sitting, and am now hooked, on both the format and what I hope is going to be a nice long series of Villanelle books.

(Just downloaded Book 2 in the series, so that’s promising.)

Right, for any of you who might not know what a Kindle single is, here you go, courtesy of good old Wikipedia :

“A Kindle single is a type of e-book which is published through Amazon.com. It is specifically intended as a format for novella-length nonfiction literature or long-form journalism. The name “single” comes from musical singles which are shorter in length and contain fewer tracks than EP albums.”

And now for the story, which is a fast paced crime novel(-ella) featuring an attractive, clever young woman, who just happens to be a highly-trained assassin.

Born in Russia, Oxana Voronstsova is a girl with a tragic family life and a distinctly flawed personality (though how much of the latter is due to her childhood, who knows…).  Vicious remand homes, and a life in prison for murder await her, until she is plucked from all this horror by a shadowy organisation, trained in every combat skill possible, and then sent on missions to eliminate whoever she is ordered to kill.

Oxana/Villanelle doesn’t waste any time in metaphysical arguments about the rights and wrongs of killing.  She has been rescued from the awful life that awaited her.  She is paid to do a job.  She does it.  And disappears.

A mistress of languages and disguise, a brilliant shot, this young woman with a voracious (though short-term) sexual appetite, looks set to become a fabulous new character for us all to love.

In “Codename Villanelle” her target is a ruthless and cruel Mafia boss in Sicily, and I won’t spoil the details of the plot, but suffice it to say it’s totally gripping and the end is…no.  Not going to spoil it…

As with “Beauty Story” the quality of the writing is excellent (as opposed to the equally excellent story line).

And now, let me get started straight away on Book 2.

Highly recommended.

Download this book on your Kindle right now and enjoy. Help is below, so you can order the e-book and, if you don’t already have one, a Kindle.

BEAUTY STORY by LUKE JENNINGS

Some times I wonder if I should bluff more when I blog, but then I think…nah. Honesty is far and away the best policy.

So, the truth of the matter is that I was casting around for something to read, and pulled a book off my bookshelf.

“Beauty Story”.

Nice hardback, bought in Johannesburg several years ago.

Languished unread ever since.  And I have no reason why.  Stupid oversight.

What a revelation Luke Jennings is.  What a writer. I have subsequently googled him (as one does to correct one’s ignorance), and discovered that he is a writer of note, a journalist and, how fabulous, a dance critic.

None of this I knew as I devoured “Beauty Story”, which is as luscious a piece of mystery writing as you could hope to read.

The book is replete with gorgeous descriptions, that are so lush and so tactile that you can close your eyes and imagine yourself in the wonderful setting of Darne, a jewel of an Elizabethan house in Warwickshire, that is being used for a film commercial. Of course, now that I know that Mr. Jennings is a dance critic, and therefore a man who clearly spends hours in theatres, the theatricality that is at the heart of the book makes total sense, as do all the beautiful, detailed descriptions of the costumes and the settings for the filming.

The story is told in the first person, and we see everything through the eyes of Alison MacAteer, a fashion journalist who is commissioned to cover an elaborate ad campaign for a new perfume, “Eternal Summer.”  The commercial is filmed in the house and garden of Darne, as a homage to one of the ancestors of the Duboys family that still lives in Darne, a beautiful young woman who disappeared without trace some 400 years ago.  The commercial is filmed as an elaborate Elizabethan masque, and one of the joys of this book is the wealth of literary and artistic references.  Mr. Jennings wears his scholarship lightly, and I loved reading about Shakespeare and Elizabethan imagery and painting.

At the heart of the Duboys family history is the unexplained disappearance of Eleanor, and when the young American actress who stars in the commercial also disappears, there are obvious parallels.  Alison, in order to understand the present, must delve into the past, and as she does so, she must confront her own demons.  For Alison has her own dark history with which she must come to terms.

This is a dazzling book, and this review simply does not do it justice.

Read it for the story which is fascinating and very clever. Read it for the descriptions which are fabulous.  Read it for enchantment.

Goodness knows why my own copy of  “Beauty Story” was neglected for so long.

Highly recommended.

Published in 1998 by Hutchinson, my (old) hardback cost £17.99

GOD IS A GAMER by RAVI SUBRAMANIAN

What a very clever and intriguing whodunnit this book is.  A financial thriller, involving banking (yes, indeed, banking of all things) and gaming and bitcoins and politics and death and love  – and the whole combo makes for a great read.

This is the second book by Mr. Subramanian that I have been asked to review, and one thing is patently clear  –  the writer has got himself a way better editor this time round.  When I reviewed “The Bankster” I commented on the poor editing that did Mr. Subramanians’s fine writing  no favours.

No such issues this time round.

So, the story.  I can’t tell you anthing about the ins and outs of the plot, now can I, since this is, after all, a story involving murder and crime on a massive scale, so any plot spoilers would be, well, just downright criminal.

Mumbai, Washington DC, New York, Goa –  the action shifts between these places, involving a cast of Indians and Americans.  The story unfolds in short crisply written chapters, as we explore worlds that were totally unknown to me before  – the worlds of gaming and of bitcoins.  “God is a Gamer” reveals to us the highest levels of finance and politics, top secret computing and the virtual bitcoin economy.  The story centres around high-level technology, but manages not to baffle the reader.  Take me, for example – I knew next to nothing about gaming and bitcoins –  and yet never felt excluded from the story.  Enough was explained to bring me up to speed, without the storyline being slowed down.  Good writing, if ever there was.

The gradual drawing together of all the different threads in this tangled, dangerous, intercontinental web – politics and romance and computing and terrorism and murder and the FBI and banking – is cleverly done.  But I can’t tell you how or why, or it would spoil a great story.

If I have one teensy weensy caveat, it is that the end seems rushed.  Throughout the book, the writer maintains a detailed pace, leading us slowly and carefully ever deeper and deeper into the dark heart of his story, and then all of a sudden, it’s over.  There’s a quick bit of mopping-up in the epilogue, telling us which characters went where and did what and where they ended up, but I felt a bit cheated.  I would much rather have had a longer read, and no quick wrapping up.

But there is one great twist, right at the end.  Really clever.

 

I certainly learned a lot from this novel, because of course I googled bitcoins and TOR and Satoshi Nakamoto.

And they all exist.

Which makes me wonder, of course, what else and who else also really exists outside the pages of this book…

 

Recommended.

 

Just published by Penguin, the paperback of “God is a Gamer” costs Rs299 (real money, not bitcoins).

If you would like to read the book now, having read this review, it couldn’t be simpler.  

Just click on one of the links below :


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MAINE by COURTNEY SULLIVAN

How is it possible to finish reading such a marvellous book like “Maine” and then be able to come up with nothing but clichés when trying to describe it?

Sweeping, dramatic, epic, saga – oh dear, oh dear, such hackneyed terms, and yet they all fit the bill.

For “Maine” is indeed an epic, sweeping tale of a family over the generations, and it is a fabulously good read to boot.  At the literal and physical heart of the story is a holiday home on the beach in Maine, where Alice, her late husband Daniel, their children and now their grandchildren traditionally spend the summer months.  The cottage occupies a central part in the psyche of Alice’s adult children, who bring to their holidays in Maine (regulated now on a roster basis, by bossy Pat and his super efficient wife Ann Marie) memories of childhood holidays, and the accompanying emotional baggage of secrets and jealousy and resentment.

Alice is the matriarch of the Kelleher clan, a family that still prides itself on its Irish heritage, which they celebrate in noisy, alcoholic fashion whenever the occasion permits.

As summer approaches, and the families once again begin to make their preparations for the holidays, we are drawn deeper and deeper into their tangled web of memory and truth, of stories and lies and deceits and secrets. For this family has secrets aplenty, which eat away at them.

We keep changing perspectives, seeing life through the eyes of the main female protagonists –  Alice, her daughter Kathleen, her daughter-in-law Ann Marie, and Kathleen’s daughter Maggie.  Each of these women has a secret, and our privileged-and-changing perspective allows us to know what the other women do not.  We see how they understand each other, but also how they wilfully misunderstand each other, too.  We see clearly, whilst they cannot, how closely love and hate are intemingled, and how easy it is to misunderstand someone’s words and motives for many years.  They all perceive each other quite differently, often with sad consequences.

Alice makes a decision about the cottage which will affect everyone, for this is a home that keeps drawing them all back, year after year, despite their disagreements and differences.

I have said in other book reviews that one doesn’t have to “be” of, or from a place, to enjoy a story, even though insider knowledge definitely adds to one’s enjoyment of a book.  The insider knowledge I enjoyed in this book, was the strong Irish Catholic leitmotiv, that both binds the family together whilst often repelling them at the same time.

There were passages that rang so true:

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The writer has a brilliantly keen ability to observe people and describe them perfectly :

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I loved this vignette of a foreigner living in New York:

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Family, secrets, the cottage, the church, marriage, alcohol – all these themes flow through the book, binding and also separating these women (for the book is essentially about the women of this family):

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The men of the family are there, present and correct, but you always feel that the real burden of the business of keeping families going, and of the cottage, and of keeping the secrets hidden safely away, falls always to the women :

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This is a lovely long read, to be devoured.

Personally and very enthusiastically recommended.

 

If after reading this review, you wish to buy this great novel, nothing could be simpler.  Simply click on the link below : 

THREE SECONDS by ROSLUND & HELLSTROM

Clichés like “a page turner” and “unputdownable” are unavoidable in a review of this extraordinary, gripping, dark novel which is – yes, here goes –  a page turner and is absolutely unputdownable.

This hefty novel (beautifully translated from the original Swedish) grips you from the very first page, and keeps you on tenterhooks until the final seconds of the book.  And as for the moment when you finally understand the significance of the Three Seconds of the title, well…

As ever with a crime thriller, it’s difficult to discuss the plot without spoiling everything, but this complex story centres upon a man called Piet Hoffmann, a man who hides his dark side and his even darker life from the young family whom he adores with a passion.

The dichotomy between a man prepared to commit crimes and a father whose love for his little boys almost moves the reader to tears is beautifully and fiercely written.

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I really cannot in all honesty tell you any more about what Piet does, or the book will be spoiled for you, but the inter-mingling of his tough, dangerous, secret, often sordid professional life with his total adoration of his wife and children is a strong leitmotiv throughout this gripping book.

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Because his work is so dangerous, Piet dreams constantly of his cocooning family life.

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I have never been to Sweden, so the names and places were totally unfamiliar, but so strong is the sparse, elegant writing that as I read, I could visualise the streets of the small town with the plain church tower, the dusty offices, the empty roads in the pre-dawn.  You can taste that stewed office coffee, and visualise the cling-wrapped tasteless sandwiches and stale pastries that are found for sale in 24 hour petrol stations.

There is a brilliantly strong cast of characters, both good and evil, with many of the former wrestling with their consciences as they try to tackle crime.

Men like Inspector Ewert Grens, bad tempered, heart-broken, prickly, avoided by most of his colleagues :

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He leads a lonely, solitary life, burying himself in police work to avoid his empty home and his nightmarish memories :

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This is a superb book, way better than this review would indicate, but I can’t bear the idea of inadvertently spoiling any of the tension for you.  And be prepared for nervous tension, some sickening brutality at times, and the feeling of nudging your way through the many layers of this book, just as the good detective Ewert Grens has to do.

Personally and enthusiastically recommended.

If you would like to buy the book, after reading this review, just click on the link below :

 

KILLING ASHISH KARVE by SALIL DESAI

I am sent quite a number of books by Indian authors to review, and like everything in life I guess, some are good, some are bad and some are downright indifferent.

And some are, quite frankly, so badly written that I battle to read them.  It is a mistake to think that just because most educated Indians speak fabulous English, that this automatically translates into fabulously well-written prose.

I won’t mention names, but a quick perusal through some reviews on this blog will give you an idea what I am talking about.

And so it was with great delight that I read Salil Desai’s “Killing Ashish Karve”, a murder whodunnit that is flawlessly well-written and is a completely gripping story with twists and turns right until the dying moments of the book.

Now, of course, the trouble with reviewing a murder mystery is that you can (for obvious reasons) hardly discuss the plot in any detail, so suffice it to say that one Ashish Karve is found dead in his car in Pune, and the police now have a mammoth task on their hands, trying to fathom out what happened.  The dead man’s family close ranks, in their own fractious, splintered way, and the police face an uphill battle, to get contemptuous and patronising middle class citizens to co-operate with them.  The desire to hush things up is a leitmotiv running though this novel, making the whodunnit aspect of the story even more intriguing.

I was gripped from the first, clever chapter.

The writer has a wry turn of phrase and is clearly a keen observer of people.  I have rarely read an Indian author who made me smile as much as Mr. Desai did.

We first encounter Senior Inspector Saralkar at his grouchiest :

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This is a man who has little patience for “unadulterated spiritual tripe,” as he grumpily describes his Secrets of Living course, and who is itching to be back doing proper police work.

Some of this police work admittedly involves winding up his long-suffering subordinate officer, Inspector Motkar, who is being driven to distraction by his son’s academic laziness and –  as he later realises – his own softly softly approach to parenting.

Saralkar can be ironic:

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And at times a tad too philosophical for Motkar:

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Mr. Desai has an unerring eye for people, their mannerisms and their verbal (and behavioural) tics:

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We meet a cast of urban characters who are all keenly observed, united only in their desire to keep the police out of every aspect of their lives.  As we are led deeper into the heart of this mystery, we encounter violence, prejudice and anger…but I really shouldn’t delve any deeper, for fear of spoiling the plot of this great read for you.

 

I have only one or two teensy caveats.

1) Why was the original title “The Body in the Backseat” not retained?

2)  I think Mr. Desai could dispense with some exclamation marks.  His writing is strong enough not to need them :

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3)  I would have described Indubai as a “care giver” not a caretaker.  But that may just be an indian English thing.  And it is a totally unimportant detail.

 

Thoroughly enjoyed the book.

Personally recommended.

And if you feel like buying “Killing Ashish Karve” now, after reading this, it couldn’t be easier.  Just click on the link below: