Saturday, 14 March 2009



Stretch your imagination and think of Professor Moriarty with AK47 threatening Sherlock Holmes. I guess, Conan Doyle would have had to arm the master detective with rocket launchers and parachute, if not RDX. Holmes's frock coat would possibly have been replaced with military-type combat uniform and he would have used the satellite tracking devices to get hold of the WMDs. In 2009, Holmes and men like him must reinvent themselves.

Devout Holmes fans will frown at such audacious imaginations. After all, Conan Doyle's immortal creation represents the 'old world romanticism' of Victorian England; there were niceties and grime, but less of fast life and gadgets; horse-drawn vehicles plying the streets of foggy London, coal-powered railway carriages and boats, telegrams and umpteen dose of nascent forensic science were all that displayed the array of modernity. There were no James Bondesque manoeuvres, no fast cars, underwater vehicles or customised guns that make the task a lot easier for the modern sleuths. It was a different world without computers and the matrix of bits and bytes; no DNA coding; no chips; no bugs to listen the conversations secretly. So finding a telephone installed at Holmes's 221B Baker Street residence or seeing him using the underground railway would have been no mean thrill.

That was the late 19th and early 20th century when developing technologies were like sidekicks, leaving all the glory to the detective. The real thrill was in the unpredictability of the mysteries; in identifying and nabbing the culprits and fathoming the depth of the mysteries with the help of the best machine human beings can ever possess --- the mind. Technology has changed everything and literary creativity isn't uninfluenced by that. The skills of the people involved in the fictional thrillers and mysteries, no matter on which side of the law they are, doesn't only depend on observation and analysis. Take for example, Jason Bourne. This amnesiac CIA renegade, created by Robert Ludlum, could access (steal, that is) the classified documents, kept in CIA section chief Noah Vosen's 'voice-locked' office, only after using the recorded sample of Vosen's voice. Flashback to A Scandal in Bohemia and Holmes had to tax his grey cells to think of smoke bombs and false alarm to find the secret place where Irene Adler had kept her photograph with the King of Bohemia. I wish he had a 'voice hacker' or something like that whenever he had to break in some building.

But, how far have the thrillers and mystery stories really moved away from the past? Despite the superficial changes, aren't they stuck in a formula that the celebrated writers of yesteryears had inaugurated?

We know that Holmes would have been nowhere without Dr John Hamish Watson. Similarly, can you imagine of Hercule Poirot without Captain Arthur Hastings or Byomkesh Bakshi without Ajit? Their supportive roles have made these detectives complete. These assistant-cum-companions act as the surrogate audience for us, the readers. But, they all are part of male bastion. What harm it would have been had our Pradosh Chandra Mitra aka Feluda met a nice charming lady, not as a soulmate, but as an able assistant and narrator of the stories? And why just assistant? Why can't we have Miss Marple of 2009 chasing the crooks through the streets of London or Madrid or Tokyo like a sprint queen? But female mystery busters in fiction were few and far between then and the tradition continues. What is stopping the thriller writers? Concern for womanly primness? But, that wasn't always a female monopoly. Holmes was chaotic in his ways but like Poirot, the Baker Street resident was moderately fashionable, if we consider his attire. Is it then that the world of detectives not ready to accept women as equals? A lady boss called M here, a Jessica Fletcher and few gun-totting lady cops there doesn't really make much difference. A hot lady like Beyonce Knowles as the detective, larger than her 'If I were a Boy' dreams, will be a super hit. When will the writers realise that? Why should only James Bond have all the fun?

With fashion comes the physique. The writers have been successful in making us believe that detection and the hot pursuit cannot be done by someone like, say, short-plump Danny de Vito. Through the ages, protagonists of the thrillers and mystery stories have been 'tough men with sleek ways.' Whether it is Ethan Hunt of the Mission Impossible series or Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan --- writers have depended on the agile and well-shaped heroes to maintain the pace and inspire awe among the readers. True, that there are exceptions --- Agatha Christies' creation portly Poirot or Sherlock Holmes's rather lazy and armchair-loving elder brother Mycroft, and in recent times writer Jeffery Deaver's preference to mind's power in his story The Bone Collector where a quadripeligic and bed-ridden ex-cop Lincoln Rhyme solves the mystery of a serial murder in New York. But they are rare.

And isn't it tiring at times to see the detectives being all too good guys? Half of Bond's charm would be gone if he isn't a lady killer... well not literally... you know what I mean. Possibly, the writers don't want to miss the kids as readers --- hence romance and passion have often given mysteries and thrillers a miss. Or else writers can use the thriller-mystery-passion combo keeping Aishwariya Rai and Halle Berry in mind as the lead character. The tagline would have been 'Hot and Thrilling'.

Add to that the 'good guy' label and tendency of sleuths to follow the official line. Holmes was openly disrespectful of the Scotland Yard, but he was not overtly rebellious. Despite his love for cocaine and instances of burglaries, at the end of the day he was on the right side of the law and a monarch-obeying citizen. Same with Ethan Hunt. I wonder why can't we have one habitual arsonist-hippie-detective-spy who is at ease both with hurling bombs, nirvana-moksha-marijuana and murder? Only such a person can flout the rules, and dispassionately deal with bikini and severed penis (courtesy Bangkok Tattoo by John Burdett). He / she can ask the mildly inebriated and woman-loving Kogoro Mori, and Christopher Moore's creation hard-drinking expat sleuth Vincent Calvino to join the team. Give me a pat on the back for thinking of such group of anti-heroes.

Heroes or anti-heroes or commoners, no one loves to lose; the larger-than-life sleuths are no exception. However, once in a while losing the game helps to boost the hunger for winning. Tell that to the mystery writers. Most of them cannot think of seeing their heroes lose the battle. In that respect, Conan Doyle was a bit exceptional, at least once, when Holmes failed to get the photographs from Irene Adler; she left it for him as a mark of her magnanimity. But even in this case, the loss was wrapped with traces of Holmes's romantic self, possibly to ward off displeasures of the devotees of the famous private investigator.

I think, the victory of the heroes act as a moral booster for the readers. The Spiderman, Superman and this and that other Man offers solace to the depressed lot, who might have suffered some trouble in personal life or professional life. The courage and activities of these fictional heroes have been like fantastic escape route from the national setbacks like a war, hurricane or economic depressions. It is almost like a poor county winning World Cup Football title. Similarly, the fictional sleuths offer ordinary people like me an assurance that there is someone who will fight offenders and track them down so that the ineptness that often creeps in the policing and justice system is nullified. So, I wonder how will I react if the detective loses it and mystery prevails or the criminal is not punished. No denying, that for me, Holmes can do no wrong. Holmes can never fail. And I am not alone with such blind faith.

When it comes to the plots, the thriller and mystery writers don't seem to have many options except the spies trying to get hold of secrets, murders of unsuspecting people, assassinations of leaders, police actions and inactions, hijacking and hostage crisis, drug gangs, secret right-wing supremacist groups, international criminal organisations, money laundering, corruption within high offices, and the like. So whether it was Edgar Alan Poe's creation Dupin investigating about the stolen letter from the French Queen (in The Purloined Letter) to Ian Rankin's Detective Inspector Rebus investigating a war criminal (The Hanging Garden) or Sherlock Holmes chasing the members of supremacist group Klu Klux Klan (in The Five Orange Pips) to the terrorist in Paul Henissart's Margin of Error --- the themes keep coming back. Isn't there any way for the writers to expand the clichéd storylines? What about a mystery that doesn't seem to be a mystery at all but never gets solved? Why is it necessary to have a twist at the end? I mean, the plot will be crystal clear to us but the private detective will goof up and the police will solve the case. I have more ideas: What about getting our Indian men lord over the British sleuths? Conan Doyle couldn't see much of India beyond the orderlies serving their White masters or some hidden treasure of the Maharajas. For a change, let's get a RAW agent to train good old Holmes about finding the Monster of Loch Ness. Whatchaa say Watson?

What has really changed is the increasing dependence on terrorism in the thrillers and mystery stories; it is a clear impact of the times we live in. The days of ordinary criminals or the organised gangs are fading away; they all now seem to have links with terrorists who stereotypically act against the West. But even in such thrillers, there can be a lack of 'recency' factor. In The Siege of Buckingham Palace by Walter Nelson, the Baghdad-based group called Bloody Christmas plans to kidnap the British Queen; in return they claim release of terrorists from British, Israeli and West German (that's dated, really) prisons along with a huge amount of money. The group is assisted in the operation by the Irish Republican Army, Japanese Red Army and German Red Army Faction. The story is recent. But the writer could not think beyond Forsyth-type thriller that had a huge fan following in the days of Cold War. Seems that Osama bin Laden or al-Qaida could not inspire Nelson to update the characters involved in such plots.

But, John le Carré never makes that mistake. His spy thrillers reflect the current world around. Take for example his recent thriller A Most Wanted Man where the issue of immigration-deportation in today's Germany was dealt with in the context of terror plots. Having given the credit to the ex-MI5-MI6-turned-thriller writer, I think without terrorism, le Carré could have suffered existential crisis. Interestingly, le Carré voiced his opposition to the War in Iraq, thus standing out among the Western thriller writers.

Almost all the well-known fictional thrillers and mysteries have been by writers in the West. It is natural for them to deal with issues --- political and social --- that are typically relevant to the Western world, but are not so for an Asian reader. Here's an example: In the western writings, CIA represented the good over the evil called KGB. For average Indian readers in the 1970s, KGB of Russia was an ally for RAW. One more example: In Tom Clancy's 1994 thriller Debt of Honor, India, China and a Japanese group Zaibatsu decide to join hands to curb America's presence in the Pacific. Thus the three Asian majors are 'bad' elements for a reader in America or the West. That has been therefore the failure of Western writers in not being completely impartial. Reading such a pro-West thriller is fine for us only if we can ignore the reality of, say, the non-aligned policies of the developing countries or say the cruelties of Guantanamo Bay prisons of the USA.

Perhaps the only way out is to have more writers from Asia and Africa who will understand the local issues better and possibly won't follow the western model of thriller / mystery writing. Writers in Indian languages penning thrillers and mysteries have been few, but they have been consistent in using local materials, though most of them too were influenced by the western thrillers. Still, they enjoy a solid fan following; even forgotten Tamil thrillers like Karungkuil Kuntrathuk Kolai, published in 1926, was recently re-launched.

In contrast, Indian thrillers in English are few, leave alone the 'fan following'. Few notable exceptions are there, like senior television journalist and CEO of the NDTV Vikram A Chandra's much-appreciated racy thriller The Srinagar Conspiracy. It dealt with the reality of militancy in Kashmir and grievances of the people in Kashmir Valley --- something that Chandra has seen first hand as a journalist --- with a love story. Added to that list are The Rozabal Line by Ashwin Sanghi and military thrillers by Mukul Deva among others. While in the theological-thriller The Rozabal Line the writer fictionalises the myth that Jesus travelled to Kashmir, Deva's thrillers are based on his real experiences in Kashmir. A former Major with the Sikh Light Infantry, Deva has seen many counter-insurgency operations in that State. The result of his 15-year stint in the Army are his well-received thrillers Lashkar and Salim Must Die. Though the themes are mythical and real life terrorism, the facts, interspersed with fiction, are more relevant for Indians and more authentic than, for example, an over-hyped jungle thriller on the Sunderbans, churned out with limited or no experience by writers based away from India.

This is then my suggested formula for all the thriller-mystery writers: Relevant, recent and authentic stories driven by naughty-rebellious protagonists who won't mind losing once in a while. Surely, that will thrill the mortal beings who enjoy breathing realistic suspense in the words. And finally, why can't the detective or the spies themselves narrate the stories? That will indeed be a challenge for the writers to let the lead character tell the story without ruining the suspense. But, like a loyal Holmes-Poirot devotee, I would still want the human mind to rule over gadgetry. And oh yes... the ban on smoking notwithstanding, I want Holmes to fill the air with the blue smoke from his pipe.

As it stands today, the number of Indian writers in English penning thrillers are few. Vikram A Chandra, Reeti Gadekar, Rajorshi Chakraborti and Mukul Deva are among the handful writers who have been trying to open up the genre keeping the Indian context in mind. It seems most of the Indian writers in English are keen to write either for the Western readership or some shallow chic lit that will get them fame and money instantly. I try to find it from them. “I really don't know why the Indian writers in English haven't explored the thriller-mystery genre,” says Chandra, adding, that the “writers need to be encouraged to go beyond the familiar subjects.” His thriller The Srinagar Conspiracy was written with a purpose to let the people know what was happening in Kashmir. “In the year 2001 when the book was published, there were lot of serious, non-fiction works on the subject. I wanted to make it simpler for the wider audience to whom I could not tell everything on the television,” Chandra says.

“Indian writers working in English have made less use of this material to craft thrillers than regional-language writers. I feel in India the source material for such stories is rich and endless. Our contemporary life is so dynamic and diverse. Our towns and cities today are full of contradictions and conflicts, dreams and desires, not to mention an amazing variety of locations. And they are just a train-ride away from our villages, and so if the writer wishes, all of these places can be connected through characters and stories,” says Edinburgh-based Chakraborti, who has written thrillers like Derangements. Agrees India's “only military thriller writer” Deva. “Indian writers in English do not explore the materials around them to write thrillers. That is why we read Ludlum or Sheldon or fall back on good old Conan Doyle. But, can we always relate to them? Crimes may be similar around the world, but the settings are rarely Indian and the attitude of the people involved are also different,” Deva says. “In fact, Indian thrillers will rarely get trapped into repetitive themes because of the vastness of our country and the variety we have,” adds Deva whose thrillers Lashkar and Salim Must Die have caused much interest among the Indian readers.

Chandra concurs: “The best way is to look at the plots from an Indian point of view. If you read Tom Clancy, for example, India has been portrayed as a villain. Our writers can change that,” Chandra says. “There is no need for writers to resort to hackneyed devices like the detective and his assistant if they don't wish to do so. Thrilling experiences in our stories can happen to a whole range of different characters,” says Chakraborti who is currently writing a new thriller which “begins and climaxes in Mumbai but the story also moves abroad briefly in between.”

Germany-based writer Reeti Gadekar says, “Indian writing in English opened with a bang but in a certain sense it is still in a developmental phase. Thrillers, crime writing, humourous writing, satire --- these genres are yet to be explored thoroughly in the Indian context.” And for that a writer needs to have extensive imagination, she says. “But, the world being dominated by the Anglo-American imagination, music, books and cinema are all heavily influenced, not just in India but also in Japan, China and Europe.” According to Gadekar, who has written a rather politically incorrect story Families at Home ---- the writer must know what he or she can write about. “If you want to write spy novels, do it if you know something personally about espionage,” she explains.

According to her, terrorism is “coloured with the element of tragedy and Indians have not found yet it possible to write racily about it”. “There have been attempts to understand such societal developments as in Shalimar the Clown and God's Little Soldier.” Perhaps, with time people will find closure and write the kind of thrillers that one finds in the West “about subjects like the WW-II or the Iron Curtain,” Gadekar, who is now writing a novel with Nikhil Juneja, says.
Auguste Dupin (writer Edgar Allan Poe)
Byomkesh Bakshi (writer Sharadindu Bandyopadhyaya)
Ellery Queen (writers Manfred Bennington Lee and Frederic Dannay under the pseudonym of Ellery Queen)
Father Brown (writer G K Chesterton)
Hercule Poirot (writer Dame Agatha Christie)
Lew Archer (writer Ross Macdonald)
Philip Marlowe (writer Raymond Chandler)
Sam Spade (writer Dashiell Hammett)
Salvo Montalbano (writer Andrea Camilleri)
Sherlock Holmes (writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)
James M Cain (Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice).
Stephen King is brilliant at generating amazing story situations such as The Shining.
Henning Mankell (created inspector Kurt Wallander)
Åke Edwardson (created inspector Winter)
Norman Colin Dexter (created inspector Morse)
Dorothy L Sayers (created amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey)
Margery Allingham (created detective Albert Campion)
and mystery stories by James Hadley Chase

(A part of the article was published in Sakaal Times of Pune
on March 15, 2009)