The publication, last year, of Kalpana Swaminathan’s novel The Page 3 Murders, was greeted with much rubbing of hands and gleeful cackling. Not just because it was a cracking good book, but because it came with the tag line – ‘a Lalli mystery’ – promising that the eponymous detective, Lalli, would be back for more. Like serial killers, readers of detective fiction like patterns, they like series: once you’re hooked, it’s a slightly guilty habit that needs a regular ‘fix’.
In this new mystery, Lalli and her niece find themselves entangled in solving a murder that happens on their own doorstep, when a busy-body neighbour who lives in the same apartment block is found early one morning, slumped dead in the lift.
Mr Rao – the Victim – is a “frail grey man of indeterminate age, he had the fine-boned skull of a scholar, a timid and confiding mien, and a touch both furtive and clammy.” He is the self-appointed ‘social conscience’ of the building, Utkrusha A, always ready to dish the dirt on others’ lives, whilst coming up smelling of roses himself. An insufferably smug, constipation-prone gossip-monger, every resident of Utkrusha A has reason enough to wish him dead. It’s fertile soil for a murder mystery, with potential perpetrators coming out of the woodwork.
Utkrusha A, or simply ‘Building’ as it is known, is the perfect setting for this ensemble piece. Rather like the ship in Murder on the Nile, it contains enough characters to keep you guessing, but not so many that you lose interest. Each of the building’s residents is distinct and well defined; and each has a ‘skeleton’ in the cupboard. The teacher who was forcibly ‘retired’ for a scandal over examination papers; the woman who had a mental breakdown after her niece was murdered for dowry; the childless couple who are trying to adopt; and what was Mr Rao’s respectable bank-clark nephew doing skulking around Flora Fountain in a red T-shirt (of all things)? Mr Rao – dubbed ‘the rattlesnake’ by Building – lives up to his name, and ends up dead. But whodunnit? And why, where and how?
Swaminathan’s ace detective, Lalli, is a silver-haired, independent-minded woman recently retired from the police force, yet still called upon by them for her brilliant mind and forensic expertise. The aunt of our slightly wide-eyed narrator, Lalli is a slightly distant figure prone to deep thought, twinkling eyes, and Not Letting On. The upshot is that the books work slightly counter to one’s expectations. One reads Agatha Christie for Poirot or Miss Marple, P.D. James for Adam Dalgliesh, Robert B. Parker for Spenser, or Patricia Cornwell for Dr Kay Scarpetta . But if one reads Swaminathan – and I strongly recommend that you do – it is for everyone else but Lalli herself. The case of the missing detective is heightened by the fact that the rest of her characters are sketched in such bold lines and brilliant detail.
The other reason that Swaminathan should be read – and is enjoyed by so many – is the sheer delight of her writing. She manages to oscillate between ironic, playful, lyrical and macabre with equal ease. The cinematic feel comes across vividly in passages such as this:
“Light is like music: everything alters t its tempo. Light robbed the room of its theatrical quality, it robbed Lalli of her years, Patherphaker of his bitterness. In its low slant into the furthest corners of the room, the light blurred edges, permitting no black and white finalities…turned slowly, relentlessly on its pivot, gathering up spaces into the growing dark. The room, diminished, drew itself into a small lozenge of twilight that contained us.”
The story touches upon international diamond smuggling, blackmail, and conspiracies, but – luckily – Swaminathan does not get too embroiled in the larger picture. Her focus remains on the desperate housewives of suburban Bombay: and therein lies the strength of this book. In bringing to light the murderer, Lalli cuts a swathe through the layers of hypocrisy that in India so often disguise heinous crimes in the name of ‘respectability’ and ‘family’. A Gardener’s Song is a inventive, funny, mischievous, and sporadically serious – as much a rapier-sharp social satire as a murder mystery. The stage is well set for Lalli number three…