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A crisp page turner

Last updated: 28 August, 2010
Veena Pradeep 16:10 IST

The third in the series of Lalli mysteries, Kalpana Swaminathan’s The Monochrome Madonna is definitely a page-turner.

The writing is crisp. There is the seemingly unsolvable murder mystery. There is the incorrigible Lalli with her astute skills of detection. And, at the end the murderer is caught, and the motive explained. It is in this last bit that the book falters. The murder is a motiveless one — which is fine — but the interpretation of the murderer’s behaviour appear so flimsy, that at the end of the tale you’re left with a feeling of disappointment.

As the first Indian fictional woman detective, Lalli is an adorable character. Despite being in her 60s she has the energy and verve of a teenager. She is as comfortable talking about murder as she is about foundation creams and lipstick. Nothing escapes her hawk-like scrutiny and nothing ruffles her calm demeanour. Although retired from the police force, she is still approached by her former department as a desperate last resort when her former colleagues are faced with intractable problems, earning her the sobriquet of ‘Last Resort Lalli’. When Lalli goes off on her annual vacation — that’s when she is unreachable — her niece, Sita, gets a strange call from an old college mate, Sitara.

Sita has only recently been reacquainted with Sitara. That’s why she thinks it strange that Sitara should call her of all people to declare she is about to die. Sita rushes to Sitara’s flat only to find a stranger very recently and violently murdered, and Sitara drugged and faint. In the living room, Sita is also struck by the photo-shopped version of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna reduced to monochrome and sporting Sitara’s face.

Even as Sita awaits Lalli’s return she finds the strange relationship between Sitara and her husband, Vinay almost aberrant. Being the niece of a famous detective, she cannot be expected to simply sit around twiddling her thumbs so she tries to put what she’s observed at the scene of crime into perspective. But of course, not being Lalli, she comes to all the wrong conclusions as to the identity of the murderer. This ploy to distract the reader’s attention from the real murderer fails because you know that her conclusions are wrong.

When Lalli does arrive she is also baffled by the monochrome Madonna and believes it holds the answer to the crime. There is a CD that Sitara has left for Lalli, which Sita at least believes will throw light on the identity of the murderer. Being the savvy detective she is, she doesn’t read Sitara’s diary-on-CD, but quickly understands who the murderer is from whatever facts she can glean, though of course not revealing anything to anyone.

How she so accurately comes to this conclusion remains a mystery to the readers.
As the investigation moves forward readers will have an idea of who the criminal is despite evidence leading another way. Therefore, the dramatic revelations at the end lose some of its fizz. Despite the disappointment at the end, the book is still readable for its captivating heroine — detective Lalli, its racy pace, and even the other interesting characters that populate its pages. Perhaps the greatest hurdle that this book will encounter is that it does not live up to the expectations generated by the first two Lalli mysteries, The Page 3 Murders and The Gardener’s Song.

The Monochrome madonna
Kalpana Swaminathan
Penguin,2010,
pp 251, Rs 250

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