Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. When many people think of the ‘country house’ sort of murder mystery, they think of Golden Age or classic crime fiction. That makes sense, too, since many of those novels have that context. But there are plenty of contemporary novels, too, that are set against the ‘country house’ backdrop. It’s easy to see why, as it can be a very effective context for gathering disparate people together. Let’s take a look at one such example today, and turn the spotlight on Kalpana Swaminathan’s The Page 3 Murders, the first in her Lalli series.
Lalli is a former Mumbai police detective, now semi-retired. She’s – erm – no longer twenty, but still in good health and mentally far more agile than most people half her age. She is very skilled, so she’s still called in to consult for LR (last resort) cases. In this novel, her friend, Dr. Hilla Driver, has recently inherited a very upmarket home (plus plenty of money) from a wealthy uncle, and decides to host a weekend party. In part, it’s a sort of housewarming party. In part it’s to celebrate the eighteenth birthday of Hilla’s niece, Ramona.
Hilla wants to make this an extra-special weekend, and she’s fairly well-connected. So she gathers together a group (including several friends of her uncle’s) that features some celebrities – the kind you read about in the ‘Entertainment News’ section of a newspaper. In one of the Mumbai papers, it’s called the Page 3 news (hence, the story’s title). The guest list includes Felix Rego, a food critic; Alif Bey, a well-known writer; Rafiz Khan, a dancer; Chili, a model; Lola Lavina, an outspoken activist; and socialite Ujwala Sane and her physician husband. Also invited are Lalli and her niece, the unnamed narrator of the story.
Mostly at the urging of her cook, Tarok Ghosh, Hilla wants the weekend to be absolutely perfect. Tarok is a gourmet chef who wants,
‘‘…to put this place on the culinary map.’’
The idea is that the newspaper (and hence, those who read it) will take good food more seriously if there’s an unforgettable ‘foodie’ weekend. So Tarok has planned the event very carefully.
Everyone duly arrives, and trouble soon begins. There’s conflict among some of the guests and drama between Lola and Alif (who are a couple). And that’s not to mention the fact that Ujwala Sane is a snob who has nothing but loud and persistent complaints about everything. Even her husband gets fed up with her.
On the second night, Tarok prepares a very special seven-course meal that’s to be the high point of the weekend. Before the meal begins, he gives each guest a special surprise – a custom-designed starter/appetizer. It’s soon clear from those gifts that these guests are keeping secrets, and that Tarok knows what they are. So when Tarok is found murdered late the next morning, Lalli is not shocked, although she is dismayed. Then another death is discovered. Now it’s clear that Lalli will have to work quickly to find out who the killer is.
In keeping with the ‘country house’ tradition, there are several relationships among the guests, and as each layer is peeled away, we learn what those relationships are, and how they led to the murders. This background means there are some tense conversations and drama between and among the characters.
Also in keeping with that tradition, the house is cut off by a monsoon storm. So there’s a sense of foreboding, too. Since it’s an older house, there are also creaks and groans and so on that add a layer of tension. Readers who enjoy ‘country house’ mysteries featuring a group of weather-bound people will appreciate the setting and context. Those who enjoy the Golden Age/classic version of this sort of mystery will appreciate the nod to that tradition. There’s even a diagram of the house at the beginning of my edition of the novel.
Another element in this novel is its distinctive Mumbai setting. The clothes, customs and speech patterns reflect that setting. So does the food. ‘Foodie’ readers who enjoy classic and modern Indian cuisine will appreciate the descriptions of the food. There’s even an example of the menu for the main event – the seven-course meal.
But this isn’t a light mystery with a set of recipes at the end. The story behind the murders is unsettling, and it speaks to a problem that won’t go away just because the killer is revealed. And we can see both in Lalli’s reactions and that of her niece that they’re fully aware that these aren’t caricatures of people. They are real human beings who are deeply affected by some of the things in their lives. That said, though, it is a traditional mystery in the sense that the violence is mostly ‘off-stage,’ and not described in detail.
Lalli is a former police detective, but this isn’t at all a police procedural. Still, she uses her knowledge and her background in forensics to find out the truth. She also uses her ability to communicate with people and get them to talk. In fact, she penetrates several people’s lies to find out what really happened.
And just about everyone in this novel lies about something or fails to mention something (which is in itself a kind of lie). As is the case in many traditional mysteries, everyone’s hiding something, and finding out what’s relevant to the case and what’s not is a challenge for Lalli and her niece.
Since Lalli’s niece is the narrator, we get a sense of her character. She’s a writer, so she’s the kind who observes. She’s intelligent, reflective and perceptive, but I don’t think it’s spoiling the novel to say that she is affected by her own biases. Still, she’s by no means slow-witted. She’s sometimes a bit mystified by her aunt, especially when Lalli seems to know what she’s thinking without her saying anything. But at the same time, she’s not an easily-gulled fool.
The Page 3 Murders is a distinctively Mumbai take on the traditional ‘country house’ mystery. It features an unusual assortment of characters, some delectable food, and a sleuth who’s earned her reputation as the one who can solve last-resort cases. But what’s your view? Have you read The Page 3 Murders? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 25 April/Tuesday, 26 April – The Cask – Freeman Wills Crofts
Monday, 2 May/Tuesday, 3 May – Nefarious Doings – Ilsa Evans
Monday, 9 May/Tuesday 10 May – Three Little Pigs – Apostolos Doxiadis