In the Spotlight: Kalpana Swaminathan’s The Page 3 Murders

>In The Spotlight: James Lee Burke's A Morning For FlamingosHello, All,

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

28 Comments

Filed under Kalpana Swaminathan, The Page 3 Murders

28 responses to “In the Spotlight: Kalpana Swaminathan’s The Page 3 Murders

  1. I’m sure I’m not the only one that thought the Country House mystery had run its course – this proves that modern day mysteries can also have such a setting and of course a weekend party is just the right type of setting! I imagine she needs some of the servants from the previous post to pull that foodie weekend off too?

    • Yes, indeed, Cleo, she does! The Page 3 Murders really is an example of a contemporary setting for the ‘Country House Murder’ sort of story, and Swaminathan handles it quite well, I think. As you say, a ‘foodie weekend’ party is a really effective context, and it works well here, in my opinion.

  2. ‘All our Free-TV has to dish is Laura Diamond, but I skip that and visit a source of really upper league crime fiction.’ – was my creed this evening.

    I tried to check on the 3 Page Murders, synopsis at minimum, a cheap offer at best, but I am outclassed & outgunned. A bit like ‘The Lodger’, I enjoyed your hint, but after 4 days I had to give priority to that weird mix called real world duties…

    Country House Mystery, a classic indeed. Your approach to it, Margot, is the spice which makes it tasty. Directing our attention on the lies & motives for those lies, in example. 😉 I never found you spoiling the thrill about any book you mentioned either.

    • The ‘country house murder’ really is a classic of crime fiction, André, and I think Swaminathan does a very effective job of giving it a modern look. And, yes, like other ‘country house’ stories, there are plenty of lies and obfuscation to go around. But as you say, no spoilers. As much as I can, I make this blog a spoiler-free zone.

      • So the trick is to design an enticing country house, filled with people one does not want to die, to make the murder an extra stark contrast, with which ‘the detective’ reconciles us by ending and mayhap punishing the violation due the murder?

  3. This sounds like a really nice take on the classic style of mystery – one for the wishlist, I think! It’s interesting though that “page 3” means something quite different over here. A page 3 girl is a topless model – a picture of one of whom appears every day on page 3 of possibly our sleaziest daily newspaper… and the one with the biggest circulation figures!

    • Really? I didn’t know that, FictionFan! It’s so interesting how things have different meanings in different contexts! On the other hand, the fact that it would have wide circulation – that travels…

      This book is a nice take on the ‘country house’ murder, I think. And it’s got the added bonus that the story behind the murders is somewhat complex, so that you don’t feel these are ‘paper doll’ characters.

  4. I was also somewhat thrown by the Page 3 reference – then I realised that it was in a different context… Sounds like a fascinating alternative take on the country house mystery – fun!

    • Fun, indeed, Marina Sofia. And yet, it’s not a ‘frothy,’ light sort of mystery. And it is interesting, I think, how that page 3 reference means different things to different people, isn’t it?

  5. I always find another book to add to my TBR list here. Thanks for the introduction to so many wonderful new books and authors.

  6. Margot, I can actually picture the party in my head. Mumbai’s socialites and glitterati have them frequently, which, come to think of it, led to the “Page 3” culture in the entertainment sections of newspapers. It’s also a euphemism for celebrity gossip. “Page 3” was also the title of a 2005 Bollywood film.

    I was amused by FictionFan’s mention of Page 3 — the black-and-white topless models who appeared on page 3 of British tabloids like “The Sun.” In fact, a couple of Indian tabloids in Bombay borrowed the idea and carried pictures of near topless models on the inside pages.

    I’m curious about this book, especially the atmosphere.

    • Thank you, Prashant, for adding your insights and giving this novel more context. Certainly the novel makes use of that sort of ‘celebrity culture,’ and it’s so interesting to learn how it all works. I didn’t know there was a film by the same name! I think you might enjoy the novel; in my opinion, Swaminathan has evoked the atmosphere really effectively.

      And as to importing the other meaning of ‘Page 3,’ I didn’t know that happened. I suppose those sorts of things do travel…

  7. Very interesting, Margot. I will have to be on the lookout for this author’s books.

  8. I saw Page 3 and wondered who the topless model was going to be! Relieved to see it was about nothing so salacious. Page 3 over here (UK) was in a certain newspaper and this page was for years taken up with photos of topless models. No idea if they still run it as I have never read it but the paper is/was notorious.

  9. Lovely review Margot. I have seen this book but somehow never picked it up from the library shelves. But after reading your review, I want to go to the library and borrow it. Thanks.

    Incidentally, the movie that Prashant mentioned is pretty powerful, revolving round the compulsions of modern day media houses/ reporters/ editors. Do watch it if you get a copy with English subtitles.

    • Thank you, Neeru, for the kind words. I hope that if you read the novel, you’ll enjoy it. As to the film, you and Prashant have got me interested now! I’ll have to see if I can find a subtitled copy.

  10. The double meaning of Page 3 is hilarious! count me in on the British side, thinking of Page 3 girls – the glamour models who featured in those newspapers.
    But this book sounds excellent – I’m fascinated by the combination of the modern features, country-house setting, and a look at another culture.

    • I think that double meaning is hilarious, too, Moira! And I’m just now reading a novel set partly in New Zealand in which such girls are mentioned in that same context. Interesting… At any rate, this novel doesn’t feature that sort of Page 3 girl. And it really is an effective combination of the ‘country house’ mystery, modern India, and modern life. If you try it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

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