“The Hachette Book of Indian Detective Fiction”, edited by Tarun K Saint

The Hachette Book Of Indian Detective Fiction, Tarun K Saint
 (ed) (Hachette, February 2024) The Hachette Book Of Indian Detective Fiction, Tarun K Saint
 (ed) (Hachette, February 2024)

Detective fiction in the West is often grouped with crime fiction and thrillers; but in detective fiction, the focus is on a puzzle and the process of solving it. It’s a game with the reader in which a mystery needs to be unraveled before the detective figures it out. In some places, the detective becomes a figure of interest in himself—detective figures have been, traditionally if less so at present, more often than not, men—a complex personality whose story is interesting and deserves an independent treatment of its own. It is a genre that solves problems, finds answers, holds the culprit accountable: all very attractive attributes for those who just like a good story.

To this genre, Indian writers bring a depth of cultural context, making the genre more about societal constructs of crime, power, and inequalities of caste, gender, and so on than about a straightforward resolution of a problem. In order to archive the diversity of this form in India, literary critic and translator Tarun K Saint has produced a two volume anthology titled The Hachette Book of Indian Detective Fiction which brings together writing both in English and in translation (from Tamil and Bengali). It includes some well-known names such as Bengali author and filmmaker Satyajit Ray, the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, the internationally-renowned Vikram Chandra, and a number of diaspora writers such as Vaseem Khan. Apart from compiling varied pieces in this collection, Saint shapes it as a fine introduction to Indian detective fiction in the form of short stories.


The stories are grouped under five categories, two of which are standard subgenres: classic whodunits with amateurs as detectives and police procedurals. The other three are: experimental or parodic detective fiction; speculative or fantasy detective fiction; and historical mysteries.

Classic whodunits have the beloved Satyajit Ray’s Feluda, one of the best-known detectives in the Indian subcontinent. It is only fitting that the anthology opens with him. The police procedurals, on the other hand, include Vikram Chandra’s Sartaj Singh of Sacred Games fame: the story reproduced here is from Chandra’s earlier collection of stories. Both are plot-oriented: the focus is on solving a case. But while the former is about a genius, or an outstanding person, who sees what other ordinary people do not, the latter is about the complex nature of law and technicalities within the system that are a commentary on crime in general. The former explains the ingenuity of one person’s intellect and resourcefulness. The latter lays bare the limitations of working within a system.

It is with the other three genres that the anthology succeeds best. The parodic or existential or experimental detective short stories, as Saint styles them, display self-reflexivity towards the genre talking about writing. Tagore’s story “Detective” is about a detective who reads too much into events and is best seen as a commentary on the narcissism the genre boasts of in the way it subtly, and sometimes not so subtly heaps praises upon a detective’s deductive reasoning or problem solving skills. It is about a detective’s first case in which he turns out to be completely clueless: the ending reveals that all the while, it is someone he knows very closely who has a small role to play in the turn the events surrounding the suspect take. The story is an interesting one, not for the crime or the suspect, but for Tagore’s observation about the difference between Calcutta and European cities as sites of crime. Here is a detective, comic in the way he  looks down upon the petty criminals of Calcutta, his head full of descriptions of crime and criminals in European detective fiction as some kind of benchmark:


Quite often, I would walk about on the streets and closely observe the faces and mannerisms of the passers-by. As soon as someone would strike me as being the least bit suspicious, I would follow them on the sly. I would even dig up information about them, only to discover with a crushing sense of disappointment that so impeccably virtuous were they, their friends and relatives had never even been able to spread false rumours about them. Of all the passers-by the one who seemed like he might be the worst kind of cold-blooded criminal – indeed whose very appearance left me in no doubt that he had just returned after committing a grisly crime – turned out to be a second-grade teacher in a local school for scholarship students, doing nothing worse than going back home from work. Had these very men been born in some other country, they would undoubtedly have become notorious thieves or bandits; but in this country, the absence of much-needed dynamism and valour compels them to spend their lives as teachers who go on to draw a pension and die of old age.


The speculative pieces in the volume have different settings: time travel, occult-practising mendicants in the Himalayas, simulation, and AI, among other things. A journalist is being trained in a simulated programme in “Death of an Actress” by Sumit Bardhan:


But a detection algorithm has to be trained first. And what better framework to train it in than constructing it as an investigative journalist and embedding it in a simulation of the society of the previous century? A time when technology was still primitive and no sophisticated monitoring instruments were available. It would force the algorithm to rely on its investigative skills alone to detect patterns.


The historical mysteries in the anthology work with realities such as the Partition or colonial rule to conjure a different time and setting. Madhulika Liddle’s “A Convenient Corpse” goes even farther back in time: it is set in Shahjahanabad (Delhi) and the time when Mughal prince Aurangzeb rebels against Emperor Shahajahan. The amateur detective is Muzaffar Jung, a nobleman, and he sets out to uncover the details of the murder of a beheaded and castrated man. The story is exceptional for its choice of time and setting: it does not read like an anachronistic modern day page turner but like a slice of life of what Delhi can be imagined to be:


The mohallah around Rasta Churiwala was in agreement: Mirza Bakhtawar Ali Khan was an eccentric sans pareil. A gossip, a busybody, a miser, a spendthrift, a saint, the Devil incarnate – nobody knew what to make of him. If the world went west, he would go east. If the world said aye, he was vociferous in his nay.
      Thus, it was at the peak of Dilli winter, when nearly everybody said their morning prayer in the warmth of their homes that Mirza Sahib went to the neighbourhood mosque for namaaz.


The anthology has been visualized as filling “a long-standing gap in the archive of popular fiction”. Editor Tarun Saint notes the following about the ethnographic commentary that Indian detective fiction is anchored in:


The fault lines in our society have come to be interrogated from a distinctive Indian and subcontinental vantage point in the genre. The emergence of an alternative basis for ethics not simply content with the reinforcement of inherited values and codes or judicial precepts can be seen in the most significant detective stories, as modes of fictive testimony. In the process there is a redefinition of the form, with a redirection of focus from neat solving of puzzles to an exploration of ethnographic complexity and socio-cultural contradictions, particularly in the light of failures to address long standing traumatic memories and silences, as justice continues to go a begging.


Hopefully, the anthology will provide a good introduction to those new to detective fiction written in India and, given its serious investment in unpacking socio-historical conditions, it will be received well in the popular as well as scholarly spaces.

Soni Wadhwa lives in Mumbai.