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BW Businessworld

Criminally Disappointing

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So it's finally here. The first home-grown Indian police procedural. Crime fiction fans can now read about Indian police officers solving murders CSI-style (well, almost). But does Salil Desai's The Body In The Back Seat live up to the long history of a genre that began back in the 1950s with Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series? I don't think so.

(I would like to warn readers that this review contains spoilers; those who wish to read the book are advised to not read this review any further.)

Fashioned after the classic whodunit, The Body In The Back Seat begins with a Pune businessman, Ashish Karve, being reported missing by his wife (only to be told that missing persons reports are never filed till 48 hours have elapsed, something we have all heard in American cop shows, but never in the Indian context). Two days later, he is found dead in the back seat of his car, which had been towed away by the traffic police; it looks like suicide, but could well be murder. Leading the investigation are Senior Inspector Saralkar and Police Sub-Inspector Motkar, who soon unearth family secrets, unsavoury business partners and rumours pointing towards a troubled past, all of which, coupled with forensic and medical evidence, soon lead them to classify Ashish Karve's death as murder. Then follow investigations into a list of suspects ranging from the wife, the business partner, the brother, the femme fatale and possible mistress, till the last alibi is checked, the last loose end tied up, and the case solved.

Writing a whodunit is never an easy task, and even though Desai takes his inspiration from some of the best — Christie, Conan Doyle, Maugham — his work never reaches the finesse that characterises theirs. Nor does he allow his murder mystery to move beyond the confines of a thriller and hold a mirror to the socio-cultural world of urban India; his Inspector Saralkar is modelled more on Hercule Poirot/Inspector Alleyn than on Martin Beck/Wallander/Rebus, without, unfortunately, the charm, character or mental acuity of any of the former. The mystery, taken by itself, is fairly pedestrian, centred as it is around the life and times of one man, and the denouement, when it comes, is no surprise at all. Given Desai's inspirations and given that he structures his novel according to his favourite classical whodunits, it's surprising how unremarkable this book is; "police procedural" is actually too evolved a term for what is, at the end of the day, a mere potboiler.

But the most disturbing aspect of The Body In The Back Seat is the way Desai chooses to address that most sensitive of issues, homosexuality, which forms the core of his mystery, the hinge on which the investigation turns. It is unclear why he chose a gay protagonist in the first place as a straight one would have worked just as well, with a few tweaks in the story arc; but whatever his motivations might have been, his treatment of homosexuals is redolent of the prejudice and stereotyping that characterised much of the 1980s, and unfortunately continues to this day. Although Desai tries to inject a neutral, almost understanding, voice through his police officers (and that in itself is suspect; police officers are never neutral, not even in crime fiction - that really is what makes the best of them so human), it is too half-hearted an attempt to undo the damage that the clichéd imagery of the brutal, perennially conflicted, diseased, dead homosexual does to a sub-culture already reeling under all possible discrimination. Although Inspector Saralkar solemnly intones "Murder is evil" in a manner very reminiscent of Hercule Poirot's "I do not approve of murder", the author's characterisation will leave many inclined to sympathise with the murderer, rather than the gay victim who was clearly asking for it.

Compounding matters further is the absent copy-editing and shoddy proof-reading; Desai is clearly not a skilful writer, and the very first sentence - "Javed Tirkhey scoured the dark, silent street" - is merely a precursor of what is to follow. But not all writers are gifted with the skill that is the exclusive preserve of writers such as Ian McEwan or, closer home, Amitav Ghosh, and that is why there are copyeditors. The attentions of one might not have rescued the book from its extreme ordinariness or dangerous stereotyping, but would definitely have made reading the book a less jerky and frustrating experience. One feels more inclined to forgive when the commas are in the right place, and when one doesn't have to read phrases like "shroud of gloom" and sentences like "There's someone in there,' he ejaculated with fright."

If you prefer mindless fare when it comes to choosing books for train/plane journeys, you could consider this one. But if you like your travels laced with decidedly more intelligence and entertainment, pick up an Ian Rankin or Henning Mankell instead. You will at least not be wasting your time.
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Salil Desai, author of The Body in the Back Seat, did not like Proteeti Banerjee's review of his book. Reproduced below are his comments on the reviewer and the review she has written...

The Seven Deadly Virtues Of An 'Evolved' Book Reviewer
A reviewer is well within her rights to heartily criticise a book. As an author I have the stomach for that.

However, Proteeti Bannerjee's review of my book The Body In The Back Seat in Businessworld Online on 5th October suffers from the seven deadly virtues of an 'evolved' reviewer:

Lack Of Ethics:  With great abandon, the reviewer violates the cardinal principle of reviewing by revealing the motive behind the crime, thus robbing a murder mystery of its most important element — suspense. An 'evolved' reviewer can't get more unethical than that, can she, even if she cheerfully throws in a statutory warning at the beginning of the review that there are 'spoilers' ahead?

Policing Political Correctness: The reviewer castigates the 'so called' politically incorrect depiction / handling of the homosexuality issue in this work of crime fiction. Of course, it is an 'evolved' reviewer's job to insist on politically correct characterisation, politically correct treatment, politically correct motives and politically correct crimes. Such policing enriches fiction greatly, especially when it completely overlooks the real attitudes existing in our society.

Ignorance: The reviewer debunks my book's claim to be called a 'police procedural'. Whatever else it may or may not be, the book has been appreciated by a former Director General of the Maharashtra Police as an authentic depiction of how crime is investigated in India, while a review in DNA declares it 'a good police procedural because this is exactly how the police work in India '. It also does not matter that the author has made a film on the functioning of Maharashtra CID, for all that the 'evolved' reviewer has to do is to be blissfully oblivious of the possibility of one's own 'ignorance' of the subject while writing criticisms.

Compulsive Dislike: Other reviews like the one in The Tribune have called my book the best murder mystery by an Indian author so far while another one in DNA calls it a real page turner, but the evolved reviewer must display a compulsive dislike for what others and lay readers like and 'trash' it in the most unsparing terms.

Scorn and Snobbishness: The evolved reviewer must show healthy condescension towards anything in the category of popular fiction calling it a 'mere pot-boiler'. After all every book must be a literary masterpiece which appeals to those with elevated, evolved souls! More importantly, it must mirror only those limited 'realities' which the reviewer is aware of. And how dare an Indian author write in any other genre except heavy, serious literary angst or chick and lad-lit? The evolved reviewer must pour instant scorn on any such attempt and assert that it compares  poorly vis-à-vis the outputs of foreign masters.

Language Lessons: The evolved reviewer's review is incomplete without pointing out real and imaginary flaws in the language. I have no idea why she faults the first sentence of my book 'Javed Tirkhey scoured the dark, silent street', unless she is completely unaware that the verb scour also means to range over (territory), as in making a search (Collins Concise Dictionary, 3rd edition 1992). But then reviewers must show off their linguistic superiority.

The Power To Damn: The power to damn is a tantalising temptation. Why else would anyone expend 827 words 'trashing' a novel, when it can be done in even two (bad book)?

Having said that, I wonder if I must thank the reviewer, because someone told me that bad reviews actually help sales! Let's hope it really happens or else it would be criminally disappointing!

Best Regards
Salil Desai