Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. The traditional whodunit sort of crime novel is at least as popular today as it was during its first incarnations. The murder, the cast of suitably suspicious ‘people of interest,’ the discovery of clues and motives, all of these arguably have a timeless appeal. And there are all sorts of ways in which such a mystery can be ‘dressed up,’ so it needn’t be a boring ‘read this before’ sort of story, either. Let’s take a look at an example of a contemporary take on a traditional mystery today, and turn the spotlight on Swati Kaushal’s Drop Dead, the first of her Niki Marwah mysteries.
Rakesh ‘Rak’ Mehta, President and CEO of Indigo Books India, Ltd., has planned a retreat for his senior staff at the exclusive Lotus Resort in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh. Everyone duly arrives and checks in, and soon enough, the meetings and other activities begin.
On the second morning, Mehta’s body is found in a valley not far from the resort. It’s soon clear that he fell from one of the cable cars that take visitors up the mountain to the resort and to other locations. Shimla Superintendent of Police Niki Marwah and her team are assigned to look into the matter, and she travels to the area. At first, Mehta’s death looks like a terrible accident. But there are suggestions, too, that it might have been murder. Before long, the case is considered a ‘suspicious death.’
Marwah and her team interview the Indigo staff members who were at the gathering, and start to piece together Mehta’s last day or so. As they do so, a few strange things come out. For instance, Mehta bribed the cable car operator to keep the cars running until midnight. So it seems that he’d planned to meet someone there. And the team learns that Mehta had just announced to his staff that he was planning to move to China. In fact, he’d even arranged an activity where one person’s name was chosen to take his place as CEO.
At the same time, Marwah and her team learn that just about everyone on Mehta’s staff had a reason to want him dead. He could be arrogant, overbearing and sometimes, downright cruel. At the same time, he was a very successful businessman who could be inspiring, and he did have a way with women, as the saying goes. The team finds even more when they look into Mehta’s past. He didn’t live anything like a blameless life, and more than one person from his past might have a very good motive for murder.
Little by little, the police get closer to the truth about what happened. When they do, they find that they’re up against a desperate person. And desperate people can be very ruthless…
In many ways, this is a traditional sort of mystery. There are several suspects, and we learn that each one of them is hiding something. In fact, even some of the hotel staff are not telling everything that they know. There are all sorts of undercurrents of jealousy, spite, and betrayal that are reminiscent of the search for motive in traditional mysteries. Without spoiling the story, I can say that there are some interesting traditional-style clues, too.
And yet, this mystery is thoroughly modern. The Indigo staff members use plenty of today’s technology, as do Marwah and her team. There are contemporary kinds of characters and dialogue, and contemporary outlooks on life.
This leads to another important element in the novel: Niki Marwah and her team. In a sense, the story has the ‘taste’ of the police procedural. There are briefings, searches for evidence, and so on. It’s worth noting, too, that the team works as a unit, with none of the police politics that you sometimes see in procedurals. Each team member has particular skills, and Marwah knows very well that she depends on these people. In their turn, they respect her.
The story takes place in the northern part of India, ‘in the lap of the Himalayas,’ and that setting is an important element in the novel. The resort is located in a place of great natural, rugged beauty that also presents dangers. It’s not uncommon for helicopters to be used to get in and out of the valleys, and the cable car that’s the focus of this murder scene is not unusual either.
The novel is also distinctively Indian in other ways, too. Food, daily life, and so on reflect the culture of today’s India. So does Niki Marwah. On the one hand, she has contemporary attitudes (and so do her team members). Those readers who are tired of misogyny will appreciate that Marwah’s skills as a detective (and she certainly has them) are more important to her team and her supervisor than is the fact that she’s a woman. On the other, she respects and shares some of the older traditions. For example, in one subplot of the novel, she’s trying to get through the case as quickly as possible, so that she can join a large family gathering. The occasion is her Dadi’s (paternal grandmother) birthday, and it bears all the hallmarks of a traditional Indian family reunion. In fact, Marwah’s parents have even invited someone they hope will be a good match for her.
Another aspect of this novel is the look we get at the publishing industry. Some of the meetings have to do with publishing schedules, choices of author and so on, and readers get the chance to ‘sit in on’ these discussions. There’s also a look at business in general; and some of it’s wryly funny. For instance, if you’re in the business world, I’ll bet you’ve participated in various company team-building activities. There is such an activity in this novel, in which the staff members are put into groups and taken into a forest area, with safety kits and instructions to work together to get back safely to the resort. The way in which the different characters react and interact will resonate with readers who’ve done team building exercises.
A word or two is also in order about the resort setting for much of the novel. The Lotus is very upmarket, with a staff that’s been trained to cater to every guest whim. Each smallest detail is taken seriously. Some of the guests are courteous, and some…are not, and readers get to see how the staff deals with it all.
Drop Dead is a traditional mystery ‘dressed up’ in the wardrobe of modern India. It features a skilled police detective and her team, and takes place in a distinctive, exclusive resort. But what’s your view? Have you read Drop Dead? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 21 September/Tuesday 22 September – Friday the Rabbi Slept Late – Harry Kemelman
Monday 28 September/Tuesday 29 September – Death’s Golden Whisper – R.J. Harlick
Monday 5 October/Tuesday 6 October – Havana Red – Leonardo Padura