Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Since its origins, the PI novel has evolved a great deal. Today’s PI protagonists are a diverse group, and PI stories take place all over the world. And the PI whodunit is no longer limited to the ‘gentleman detective’ who gathers all the suspects in the drawing room to name the culprit. Let’s take a look at an example of the modern PI novel today, and turn the spotlight on Madhumita Bhattacharyya’s The Masala Murder, the first of her Reema Ray, PI novels.
Ray is based in Calcutta/Kolkata. She gets some cases (mostly ‘vetting’ of prospective spouses and following up on cases of suspected infidelity). But her one-person company, Steele Securities, hasn’t been exactly lucrative. Fortunately, she makes ends meet by doing freelance writing for a lifestyle magazine called Face. It’s not the life she had imagined for herself, but it pays the bills.
And it gives her access to the best restaurants in the city (‘foodie’ readers will appreciate that), and the chance to interview all sorts of people. One of them is a gourmet food importer named Prakash Agarwal. One day, during another interview, Ray learns that Agarwal has suddenly died. The initial reports don’t point conclusively to murder. But Agarwal was ill before he died, and wasn’t getting better. What’s more, the body has been released to the family very quickly – perhaps too quickly. Face doesn’t do news stories like this one, but this death is certainly of interest to the magazine’s readership. And Ray is curious, anyway, about what happened. So, she decides to pay her respects to Agarwal’s widow, and perhaps learn more about what happened.
Surprisingly, Mrs. Agarwal remembers her from the interview. Even more surprisingly, she asks Ray to let her know of any information she might find out about her husband’s death. Then, she says,
‘‘Whatever else, don’t hold back to spare my feelings. Prakash Agarwal was a bastard who deserved to die. But if he was indeed, murdered, I would like to know who did it. And why.’’
It’s not exactly a contract to take on a case. But it does get Ray started asking questions. And I can say without spoiling the story that Mrs. Agarwal’s estimation of her husband is quite right. There are plenty of possible suspects in that case.
In the meantime, Ray has another case that comes, quite literally, right to her door. Her ex, Amit, pays her an unexpected visit. His wife (and Ray’s former friend), Aloka, has been abducted. That in itself isn’t so unimaginable, since her parents are very wealthy. But they suspect Amit of having something to do with the abduction, and he wants his name cleared. On the one hand, this brings up all sorts of unresolved issues. On the other, a woman has been abducted and is likely in real danger. And Ray does want to put the past behind her. So, she agrees to help.
As Ray continues to ask questions, she finds that, in both cases, people are suddenly unwilling to talk to her. Why does Agarwal’s widow begin by asking for her help, and then, as the saying goes, freeze her out? And why would Aloka’s family not want her help finding their daughter? And who is Shayak Gupta, who has a habit of turning up wherever Ray is? Is he just the brother of Argawal’s business partner, as he says? Or is there more to him? In the end, and after a few false starts, Ray finds out the truth about both cases.
This is a contemporary PI novel. So, readers follow along as Ray talks to people, looks through public records (and some that aren’t so public), and so on. As this is the 21st Century, Ray also uses the Internet quite a lot. She doesn’t have the force of law behind her, but she has her own resources. Calcutta may be a large, modern city, but it’s still the sort of place where people know each other. So, Ray depends quite a bit on tapping those informal connections.
One of them is a group of volunteer detectives that Ray calls the Calcutta Crime-Fighters’ Club (CCC). Besides Ray, the group includes two attorneys, another PI, and a Calcutta Police Inspector. The CCC meets to discuss different cases, and hopefully contribute their expertise. As Ray puts it,
‘…my CCC membership at least was evidence that I wasn’t the only one frustrated with the state of law enforcement in town.’
Various members of the CCC turn out to be very helpful as the story goes on. And the group reflects the custom of getting things done through unofficial channels. If you do know someone who knows someone, that’s often the best and quickest way to get what you need.
The story is told in first person (past tense), from Ray’s point of view. So, we learn quite a bit about her. She’s twenty-six, unattached, and in no great hurry to change that, especially after the bad break between her and Amit. On the one hand, she’s at a crossroads in her professional life. On the other, she doesn’t spend a lot of time wallowing and moping about her situation. She lives on her own, but is close to both her parents (although they are divorced). In that sense, she reflects the mix of both tradition and contemporary thinking that is modern Calcutta. She has natural detective skills, but she also makes her share of mistakes, and takes wrong turns. Readers who are tired of both dysfunctional detectives and ‘superhero’ PIs will appreciate that Ray is neither.
As I mentioned, the story takes place in today’s Calcutta, and Bhattacharyya places the reader there, both geographically and culturally. It’s a large metropolis, with very wealthy areas as well as areas of desperate poverty. There’s a mix of tradition and modern attitudes, and we see that not only in the city itself, but also in people’s points of view.
The novel isn’t what you’d call noir or gritty. Readers who prefer their crime fiction to be low on ‘on-stage’ violence, explicit sex, and profanity will appreciate this. That said, though, it addresses a few truly ugly issues. It’s not a ‘frothy’ sort of book.
The Masala Murder introduces a modern PI who is very much a product of the city where she lives and works. It features a complex whodunit that takes place in a distinctive cultural and geographic setting. But what’s your view? Have you read The Masala Murder? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 2 January/Tuesday, 3 January – A Three-Pipe Problem – Julian Symons
Monday, 9 January/Tuesday, 10 January – Burial Rites – Hannah Kent
Monday, 16 January/Tuesday, 17 January – An Easy Thing – Paco Ignacio Taibo II