Who could it be?

Who could it be?

Who could it be?

Q&A, the novel that became the basis for the smash-hit film Slumdog Millionaire, used questions from a television quiz show to prompt flashbacks about its main character’s life story. Here’s a question for its author, Vikas Swarup: Can a novel be any more high-concept than that?

Yes it can. Swarup’s second novel, Six Suspects, is a Bollywood version of the board game Clue with a strain of screwball comedy thrown in. Its stock characters are easily identified: the Bureaucrat, the Actress, the Tribal, the Thief, the Politician and the American. Each attended the party at which a man named Vicky Rai, a playboy film producer, was murdered. Each has a gun and a motive. And although the story’s geographical span is even bigger than India, the whole thing feels handily confined to the kind of isolated, air-tight setting that Agatha Christie’s readers love.

Thanks to such a schematic setup Six Suspects is gleeful, sneaky fun. But it’s also a much more freewheeling book than the format implies. Swarup, an Indian diplomat, brings a worldly range of attributes to his potentially simple story. And he winds up delivering a rambling critique of Indian culture, taking shots at everything from racism to reality TV. Yet Swarup’s style stays light and playful, preferring to err on the side of broad high jinks rather than high seriousness. A fizzy romp seems to be the main thing he has in mind.
Oddly enough, that ambition turns this formulaic-sounding book into a refreshing oddity. It bears no resemblance to any of the cookie-cutter genre books of this season. Its idiosyncrasy becomes apparent with the first of the six suspects, the Bureaucrat: Mohan Kumar, who was a man of power and influence until he hit forced retirement at 60. Thus adrift, he lets himself be coaxed to a séance at which the spirit of Gandhi is scheduled to appear. “I see dead people,” someone at the séance says with a snicker.

Mohan has no belief in the claptrap of séances. And as a hard-drinking, meat-eating adulterer, he hasn’t much use for Gandhi anyhow. But a funny thing happens at the gathering: Mohan has the strange sensation that a foreign object is sliding down his throat. Soon afterward he develops a split personality. He insists that he is a holy man half the time. But he can forget all about this posturing and resume his old vices as if nothing had happened.

Six Suspects is zany enough to get Mohan jailed and give him a cellmate who utters nothing but the titles of novels. For instance: “What are you in jail for?” “Atonement.” “And what do you think will be your punishment?” “One hundred years of solitude.” “Who is your best friend here?” “The boy in the striped pajamas.” Laugh or groan at this, either way it gets your attention.

So do Swarup’s plot machinations about Shabnam Saxena, a smouldering Bollywood star who somehow takes her marching orders from Nietzsche (and at one point grills another character about his familiarity with the writing of Bernard Malamud). Shabnam worries so much about her image and reputation that she really ought to anticipate how much trouble the story has thrown her way, once there turns out to be an innocent country girl who looks enough like Shabnam to be her double.

Meanwhile, on a plane from the United States, an idiot named Larry Page is headed from Texas to India with plans to make Shabnam his bride. Somebody duped him into falling in love with her picture and mistaking her for a mail-order bride. Larry, of course, has his own capacity for creating mix-ups, since he shares his name with one of the two Google founders and strikes ruthless terrorists as a good target for kidnapping. Swarup generally treats his characters warmly, but this American is made a boorish lout. The book says that Larry might look like Michael J Fox, but only if he lost a lot of weight.

Six Suspects also condescends to the character it calls the Tribal, a black, five-foot-tall Onge tribesman who is treated like a slave when he is brought from his native island to mainland India. Yet this character, whose name is Eketi, still becomes Swarup’s most lovable creation. While the others have their venal motives, Eketi has a kind heart, but he is beautiful to only the blind woman who falls in love with him. The odd-couple romances that bloom in these pages help tie together what are essentially six novellas. And they lead to the fateful night that culminates in Vicky Rai’s murder.

Eventually Swarup will provide the necessary denouement to his whodunit. And that denouement may be even more mysterious than it had to be. But the real fun here is in watching the separate story lines develop and in watching Swarup weave commentary into even his book’s looniest moments. When Shabnam makes a film in Australia and watches blond female dancers trying to perfect their Bollywood choreography, she wonders if she isn’t watching some kind of colonialism in reverse. When a rich girl falls in love with a poor boy, in a plot twist straight out of Indian romance movies, that boy responds with a figurative wink. “I don’t know whether to thank God or Bollywood for this remarkable turnaround,” he says.

Six Suspects aspires to broadly entertaining pratfalls, and it is endlessly eager to please. Not even the corrupt politician who figures in the plot (and whose wheeling and dealing are conveyed by transcripts of his outrageous phone calls) is terribly complicated, although Swarup can use the simplest characters to create frissons of mystery. The politician is Vicky Rai’s father, and he has grown increasingly impatient with his son’s arrogance.

“You must be familiar with the concept of sacrifice,” he tells his chief henchman. “Have you heard of Abraham?” That makes him one more murder suspect in this book’s expertly delirious scheme.

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