When We Were Orphans

Typical of Kazuo Ishiguro’s themes, When We Were Orphans, which is set mostly in the 1930s England while also hovering over to Shanghai, deals with the diminishing of one’s memories and the protagonist, Christopher Banks, makes a conscious attempt to try and recollect them and tell his story.

Through these recollections we see how he lived in Shanghai and how he had to come back home to England due to his parents going missing.

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Sleuthing Around

A lot of kids have grown up on crime thrillers or mystery novels written for kids and teens like Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Enid Blyton’s popular series Famous Five and Secret Seven and scores of other books. Tons of Indian kids have also been hooked by these writers and their young detectives. There are many Indian writers also who write detective stories for children as well yet they don’t seem to be very popular as compared to the ones written by the foreign writers.  Not many know that one of India’s best film maker, Satyajit Ray, also penned a number of detective stories and created one of his own sleuths, the famous Feluda who would go around solving mysteries with his nephew Tapesh and later on Lalmohan Ganguli.

Satyajit Ray began writing these stories for the Bengali children’s magazine, Sandesh. The first story was titled Danger In Darjeeling and was published in 1965. Thereafter, there was no looking back. Feluda became very popular with its young Bengali readers and Ray wrote at least one story every year. In all, 35 Feluda stories were published from 1965-1996.

Enough about facts, now down to the review. The Penguin Publications came out in 2004 with a definitive two volume edition, The Complete Adventures of Feluda which contains all the stories. So whether you were hooked on to these stories as a kid and want to relive them now or simply love detective stories, these volumes are a must have. Translated from Bengali by Gopa Majumdar, they are chronologically arranged and show the progress of Feluda as a detective along with the marked progress in Ray’s writing too. The initial stories are simple and childish but later on the plots become more dangerous, complex and twisted. The characters become more fully etched and we come to learn more about this beloved detective’s personality-that he is a knowledgeable person, a voracious reader and a very talented man.

The detective’s real name is Pradosh C. Mitter and his nickname is Felu. His nephew’s name is Tapesh who Felu lovingly called Topshe. The suffix ‘da’ is used as a mark of respect when addressing an elder brother. The first volume has 16 stories which are very entertaining and exciting. It is a treat for any fan of crime fiction. Ray’s language is simple and lucid and keeping in mind the primary audience for his stories, he kept them clean and with minimal violence. Reading the Feluda stories doesn’t just proffer its readers dollops of thrill and fun but also a tour of India and an insight into the life the Indian people in those decades. In Volume 1 itself, the trio travelled from Jaisalmer to Lucknow, from big cities like Bombay to small places like Gosiapur, from Shimla to Gangtok and many more places. These stories do not just tell a tale of adventure and crime but take the reader on a journey across India.

Narrated by Feluda’s own Watson-Topshe, these stories connected easily with its teenage audience. Ray was a self professed lover of crime fiction and had read all the Sherlock Holmes story. It is therefore no wonder that those stories provided an inspiration to him and became a reference point for the format and style of his own detective stories. We see a little bit of Ray reflected in Feluda’s personality as well. Often his views are similar to those of the great film maker.

These stories are a great read and quite informative as well. They are a wholesome read for everyone.

Devices and Desires

P.D James’ bestseller, ‘Devices and Desires’ is unlike any detective/thriller I have read. It is a completely atypical crime story that breaks away from tried and tested detective story conventions. Yet James manages to create an equally thrilling and compelling read.

Taken from filmizer.com

At the core of the story is a creepy serial woman killer who goes by the name of Whistler. The killings have rocked the fictional Norfolk coast and have scared the women from venturing alone at night. Then the killer strikes at Larkosen- a picturesque town of Norfolk-with one of the female workers at the Larkosen Nuclear Power Station murdered. Adam Dalgliesh of the New Scotland Yard was on a holiday at Larkosen to settle all the affairs of his aunt’s death-including blowing her ashes and taking care of the the fortune and the windmill she bequeathed him. He invariably gets enmeshed in the murders despite Norfolk not being his patch. When a 2nd murder hits Larkosen, the mystery deepens and fresh troubles surface for Terry Rickards, the Chief Inspector of Norfolk in charge of solving the case, who is desperate to find the elusive killer at all costs.

The plot of ‘Devices and Desires’ sounds like the countless detective stories that come packaged in cheap paperbacks. Yet it is vastly different. Firstly, the pace is much gradual. James takes her own sweet time to build the story, to create tension and take it to a thrilling climax.  She is as interested in the characters and setting as the plot itself which is why the reader peruses pages devoted to establishing the desolate, wild yet beautiful atmosphere of the Norfolk coast in general and Larkosen in particular and to fleshing out characters who are not merely stock characters but individuals with their own unique viewpoint and thoughtful insights.For ex. Dalgliesh is often depicted as pondering over his melancholic and contradictory thoughts about his aunt. The novel is thus very descriptive which burdens it and thus tends to slow down the story’s pace. This may not be appealing to all kinds of readers especially those who are used to their weekly doses of fast paced thrillers. Nonetheless, the novel is still worth the shot because James makes sure that the reader is both aesthetically as well as sensationally pleased with her descriptions and intricate plot.The depth in characterization and the landscape gives this genre fiction novel a literary touch (which is heightened by several references to works of literature such as ‘Dover Beach’, a poem by Matthew Arnold.

James also creates skillful contrasting moods. One moment the reader is plunged into an anxiety ridden chapter of the Whistler’s to-be-victims’ thoughts and in the next the reader dives into the cool, organized thoughts of Dalgliesh or the thoughts of the other numerous inhabitants of Larkosen. James skillfully depicts the gruesome and horrifying aspects of murder and violence as well as manifests the vicious desires and passions of ordinary humans. She has a deft writing touch that marvelously depicts both with a talented ease.

What is jarring is the sudden burst of fast paced and unexpected thrill close to the end that awakens the reader from the stupor brought on by the book’s lulled pace itself. Here James style of alternating moods begins to fail. Its as if she has realised that she needs to quickly finish the story and reveal the murderer and not go on rambling about Larkosen’s beauty or its inhabitants’ idiosyncrasies. The continuation of the same smooth and lulling pace as the whole story would have been more appropriate rather than thrusting the reader into action and more murders that seem blatantly out of place. They seem to be there only to shock the reader or to create the conventional twists in the story.

Yet, apart from these few unexpected jolts, the actual unraveling does happen in a controlled, casual way almost as if a picnic was being discussed and not a murderer’s confession. ‘Devices and Desires’ is still a good, the narrative powerful and stimulating enough to hook all detective fiction lovers and fans.

Elephants and Actresses

The queen of crime strikes again with two easy to read detective novels-‘Elephants Can Remember‘ and ‘Lord Edgware Dies.’ Both are a thrill to read and have trademark Agatha Christie elements and both are Poirot novels. However, the former is rather predictable.Perhaps this comes from having read several Christie novels.

Elephants Can Remember‘ rakes up an old case of a double suicide of the Ravenscrofts. The police had declared that the husband and wife had perhaps entered a suicide pact and either could have killed the other and then oneself.  However, the godmother to their daughter, Mrs. Oliver, an esteemed detective writer herself, is asked by Mrs. Burton Cox at a literary luncheon whether it was the mother or the father that had committed the crime. This query seems initially very trivial and unnecessary but gradually gets Mrs. Oliver’s grey cells rolling as well. She gets her friend Hercule Poirot to help and relies on all her acquaintances who might have known the Ravenscrofts to help her find out what really happened between the doomed couple. The novel looks into the past  and relies on the memories of ‘elephants’ to solve this peculiar case. An interesting aspect of ‘Elephants Can Remember‘ is that Mrs. Oliver is a writer in general and a detective novelist at that. Also, the play on elephants is quite amusing.

Lord Edgware Dies‘ has all the essential things one needs for a mystery-money, love, marriage, the film community, the rich and famous and plenty of motives for murder. One day, Lord Edgware is found murdered and his wife and famous actress, Jane Wilkinson, is suspected because not only did she the night before claim that she would have no qualms about killing him but the butler of the Lord’s house recognized Jane entering the house. In fact, Jane  announced herself and went into Edgware’s room that very night. The police are cocksure about the case being very straightforward. However, the one glitch is that Jane was present at a dinner party that very night. How could she be at two places? The plot begins to boil and thicken with two more murders and a chance remark comes to the rescue of Poirot’s flummoxed grey cells.

Taken from openlibrary.org

They may not be her best work but are a breezy read nonetheless. All Agatha Christie, Poirot and detective novel fans will love them. And if any reader is smart enough, she/he can easily predict the killer in both the books. The suspense is much muted and even though the reader will most probably not be hanging at the edge of their seat, ‘Elephants Can Remember‘ and ‘Lord Edgware Dies‘ are bound to be good reading companions to while away the time or when one has absolutely nothing to do!

Crime in Corrupt India

The dearth of Indian crime fiction has been partially saved by the novel ‘Six Suspects‘ written by Vikas Swarup, better known for his novel, ‘Q and A’ that was adapted into the Oscar winning film, ‘Slumdog Millionaire.’ While ‘Q and A’ was a rather amateurish, not at all researched book with bits of faulty writing, ‘Six Suspects‘ is a tad bit better. While it has its own flaws, it is nonetheless a pretty good detective/thriller story that exposes the corrupt India and has a story that will be lavished by detective fiction lovers/fans.

Taken from fantasticfiction.co.uk

The plot revolves around Vicky Rai’s (the son of the Home Minister of Uttar Pradesh) murder that took place while he was partying at his farmhouse in Delhi to celebrate his acquittal in a Jessica Lall style murder case(only in the book, the girl who was shot dead by Vicky was named Ruby Gill). There are essentially six suspects that are detained by the police as they were found carrying guns. Then, aptly, Swarup goes on and gives elaborate descriptions about all the six suspects and their motives to kill Vicky Rai. The six suspects are a motley crowd-including a sexy actress, an American,a mobile thief, Vicky’s own father, a tribal from Andaman and a former chief secretary of Uttar Pradesh. These stories are cleverly interconnected and intelligently converge at Vicky Rai’s farmhouse. In the end, an investigative journalist, Arun Advani, solves this murder mystery and the end is, I might say, quite unanticipated! The murderer is an unexpected one.

The story is well structured, with quite a few twists and turns that are definitely surprising.

Along with giving massive details about the life stories of all the six suspects, which by the way takes up a large chunk of the novel, Vikas Swarup also highlights the corruption rampant in India’s politics, displays the divide between the rich and poor and the different classes, the world of powerful contacts and influences and several more such instances that reveal the sleazy side of India.

Despite ‘Six Suspects‘ being a good detective read, it still has certain weak spots. Firstly, Vikas Swarup tries to put in a lot of information about India in the novel and most of it is sadly lifted from ‘breaking news’ sessions of the Indian tv channels that can get monotonous. This aspect makes it look like ‘Six Suspects was written for foreign audiences and Swarup was aiming for this book to be made into a film as well.  It seems there is a lack of originality. Secondly, certain ideas are rather stereotyped like the American’s view of India when he comes for the first time, the bit about Islamic fundamentalists is also very cliched(all Muslims are terrorists and all that crap). Although the story has an unpredictable end, there are times when the stories of the six suspects get predictable-for example, the tribal from Andaman has to be foolish and get duped by several people in India. Why can’t the tribals be intelligent for once?And there are several such examples.

There are certain creative bits as well like the English Literature professor ,which the former Chief Secretary met in jail, who expresses himself by uttering book titles only.

So the final verdict would be that ‘Six Suspects‘ is definitely worth a read, a good crime novel that unfortunately shows only a newspaper version of India and does not delve deeper into India’s chaotic soul. From the writing it becomes apparent that the India of ‘Six Suspects’ though very real still has a touch of being seen from a distant lens. The lack of research shows through. So if one knows nothing about India, one can probably grab this book to know about its underbelly and get some background on all the wrong things that happened in the country in the past decade or so.

Thriller of an alphabetic kind!

I heard about the author, Sue Grafton, when I read the book, ‘Chicken Soup For The Writer’s Soul.’ It mentions her story, about how she got her works published which was mainly a collection of mystery fiction of what came to be known as ‘the alphabet series’ as each novel had an alphabet in its title.

Taken from fantasticfiction.co.uk

When I came across one of the novels, ‘L for Lawless‘, in the college library, I excitedly picked it up hoping to be treated to an excellent thriller. However, my hopes, though not completely dashed, but nonetheless they were subdued. The novel was a bit uninspiring and did not motivate me to read her other novels.

L for Lawless‘ stars her usual private investigator, Kinsey Millhone. The novel begins with her narrating how she got involved in this mystery and how she regrets it. She recalls how it all started when a friend, Henry Pitts, asked her to look into late Johnny Lee’s mysterious absence of records in the Army Office when in fact he was a World War 2 fighter pilot. He had recently died and his grandson, Bucky, wanted a decent funeral paid for by the Armed Services. This request seemed harmless, a little bit of snooping around would have easily solved the problem or so Kinsey thought. Each passing day, a new aspect of Johnny’s life was unearthed and she found herself sinking deeper into his mucky past. A couple of break-ins in his house signaled even more mysterious trouble which Ray Rawson, an apparently old friend, helped Kinsey to understand. As she plunged into solving this ‘easy’ problem she found more criminal shadows in both Rawson’s and Lee’s past and unfortunately a brutal killer was set on her trail!

The novel, ‘L for Lawless‘ has great twists and turns, an easy weekend read, does not test the reader’s intelligence, a good time pass.

What didn’t work for me was the countless descriptions. Some of them are essential to move the plot but some just drag the pace. For eg, while Kinsey was in an airport, walking towards the convener belt, a dozen descriptions of what she observes is mentioned but that could be easily avoided as her observations in no way help her solve the case or move forward with it atleast.

I don’t know why, but when I was reading the book, I felt a nagging in my head that I was reading just an older version of Nancy Drew. Don’t get me wrong, it is not kiddish or a rosy book. It has its own set of blood and gore and definite shock and surprises.

The story is good but somehow does not click with me. I feel it is a bit amateurish. There are several other thrillers that are much more engaging and intelligent.

 

Miss Marple Omnibus-Volume 2

Agatha Christie is no doubt the queen of mystery! Even though there is a recent flood of detective novels in the world over from diverse backgrounds, she manages to be the most popular detective story writer along with Arthur Conan Doyle. And she is my favourite too.Till recently I had not read a single Agatha Christie book in a long time. I saw one of my classmates having one big fat Agatha Christie book with her and I borrowed it from her. It was titled ‘Miss Marple Omnibus-Volume 2.’ This omnibus has 4 novels featuring Miss Marple, Christie’s much loved, old, shrewd detective dame! These 4 novels are-1) A Caribbean Mystery 2) They Do It With Mirrors 3) The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side’ 4) A Pocket Full of Rye.

All the four novels are really good and till the end they keep you guessing as to who the culprit is. The reader perhaps seldom finds out the real culprit as Christie always manages in most of her novels to direct the reader’s suspicion to characters who are not the culprits at all! 

Taken from blogadda.com

The Caribbean Mystery‘ as the title suggests is set in the Caribbean with Miss Marple enjoying a vacation in an opulent hotel. Now this doesn’t sound dramatic though, does it? But well, Miss Marple has the uncanny ability to get tangled in crimes that happen in the oddest of places! The murder of Major Palgrave, who was also staying in the hotel, and the disappearance of a photograph of a murderer about which Major Palgrave was telling a story to Miss Marple, sets a chain of events rolling! That story is connected to Major’s murder and other ensuing sinister murders! The story has a chilling end and I am sure if the reader is smart and keeps an eye out for things, they can guess who the murderer actually is. If you can’t, then you will certainly smack yourself in the end of the story for not solving such a simple mystery!

The second novel, ‘They Do it With Mirrors’ is equally riveting. This one is very predictable if you use your brains. Miss Marple stays as a guest in a friend’s house, Carrie Louise’s house to be precise after the latter’s sister insists that there is something sinister brooding in the house. And I suppose, the sister’s intuitions are right because Miss Marple feels the same too and eventually a murder does take place in the most queer fashion when a hot, violent argument between Carrie Louise’s husband, Lewis and a deranged patient of his! It seems that the police would handle it but fame precedes Miss Marple and her help is sought out. It is predictable but still reading how Miss Marple arrives at the solution is marvellous.

The 3rd novel,’The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side‘ is a brilliant detective novel. The revelation of the murderer and how Miss Marple gets to it will leave the reader shell shocked. Miss Marple’s friend, Dolly Bantry, has sold her house to a famous actress, Marina Gregg. She holds a party in that house to commemorate her stay in it and an inexplicable murder takes place. The solution is far from simple and Miss Marple stretches all her talent to the limit to find out the murderer. This novel is by far the best among all four in terms of its shock value

The last novel, ‘A Pocket Full Of Rye’ is another excellent novel. Rex Fortescue dies of poisoning. And so does his wife. Some rye in the former’s pocket and some other eccentric and strange incidents that happened in the house, allow Miss Marple to connect the crime to a famous rhyme. It is uncannily similar to it and Miss Marple gets down to helping the police in search of the cold blooded killer. The end is surprising as usual. This is because, Christie constantly tries to put suspicion on other members when in fact the culprit is someone else altogether!

This omnibus is wonderful! An engaging book. A must read for all fans of Agatha Christie.