“Death in the Air” by Ram Murali

Ram Murali (Photo by Kasia Kosiba) Ram Murali (Photo by Kasia Kosiba)

Almost a hundred years ago, Agatha Christie published an Hercule Poirot mystery, Death in the Air, which takes place on a flight from Paris to London. It may not be her most famous, but debut author Ram Murali has recycled the title for his whodunnit set mainly in the foothills of the Himalayas near Rishikesh—where the Beatles studied meditation—but also in small parts in London, Paris, and Bermuda.

American Ro Krishna becomes an accidental detective not long after he’s forced out of a high-powered job involving a new building project in Prague. He’s in his late thirties and lives in London. Although he’s paid a large severance, he wants revenge against his manager, a white woman who took all of the credit for his work. When Ro’s London friends suggest he take time for himself at Samsara, a posh spa near Rishikesh, Ro learns that other friends will also be there for the same ten-day retreat over Christmas. At his birthday party in London before he leaves, he meets others going to the retreat, including a stylish woman named Amrita Dey.

On Christmas Eve day, Ro arrives at the resort and knows he’s in for a treat.

 

As Ro had arrived after dark the previous day, he had not yet taken in much about his new surroundings. He now realized that Samsara was situated on a plateau a good way up the mountain he was currently facing. He walked out a few yards onto the lawn and then turned around. The Residence looked Bauhaus or Art Deco: a longer and lower version of a building one might see in South Beach, or in Tel Aviv, or in which Hercule Poirot might live. Somehow, it gave off an impression that was both clinical and reassuring, perhaps because of the warm wood of its terraces and the charming pale yellow of the curtains behind them.

Like any good Agatha Christie story, people turn up dead.

Death in the Air, Ram Murali (Harper, Atlantic Books, June 2024)
Death in the Air, Ram Murali (Harper, Atlantic Books, June 2024)

The last thing Ro expects is to be cast into a Hercule Poirot role, although that won’t happen until well into the book. Ro connects with his London friends, old and new, and meets other guests. Some guests participate in yoga and Ro consults with a doctor to get him on a more healthy regimen. Many of the Indian guests feel perplexed that a white man is brought in as a resident yoga expert. In all other aspects, the atmosphere is relaxed and communication is limited to an old-fashioned way of sending hand-written note cards, composed on stationery each guest picks out at the beginning of the ten-day stay.

On Christmas Day, Amrita is found dead. Because Ro was trained as a lawyer, the owner of the resort, Mrs. B, asks him to investigate. The last thing she wants is a scandal that could reverberate in posh circles around the world, ending the spa’s spotless reputation.

In his investigation—along with a local inspector that Mrs. B allows in—Ro learns more about Amrita’s family. According to Mrs. B, who went to school with Amrita’s mother:

 

The money came from her father. It was quite a tragic story. His family were jewel merchants. They were all killed during Partition. He somehow managed to escape and ended up in Calcutta. He must have brought some of the jewels with him.

 

Although the backstory is rooted in Partition, but that major historical trauma does not dominate the story. Nor is Murali’s story afflicted with the exoticism one could imagine it might have been.

 

Like any good Agatha Christie story, more people turn up dead—likely murdered—and since the resort is closed to just guests and staff, the murderer is not from the outside. Ro interviews the remaining guests and staff members and finds that he’s getting closer to figuring out the murderer. Or is it murderers? There’s a James Bond-like near-death scene at the end of the book, but as one can expect from both Agatha Christie and James Bond, the hero survives.

Murali’s debut is an engaging story in which he skillfully pulls off a compelling tribute to Agatha Christie. Perhaps, like her, there will be more than one.


Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.