Mystery up on the hills

The New Delhi-based Sudarshan is a National Law School of India graduate, so he has set his novel in an environment that he is obviously comfortable with — lawyers and court cases. This is not to say that this is a courtroom drama. Sudarshan has written a murder mystery set in a Himalayan hill town called Bhairavgarh, far from the searing, dusty plains of Delhi.

There is something nice about a story set in an Indian hill station — it adds angles and flavours that work on the brain on a subliminal plane. It could also be because one is reviewing the book in an unexpectedly torrid summer, and the mind, at least, is happy to escape from the heat.

The central characters of the novel are the whimsical Delhi criminal courts judge Harish Shinde and Anant, his young law clerk. Anant is invited to join the judge on his holiday in the hills. The entire tale is told from his point of view.

To my mind, the Justice Shinde character is a combination of Nero Wolfe and Hercule Poirot. What adds to the Agatha Christie-like setting is the collection of guests at a house for a holiday — and a mysterious murder.

While solving the mystery forms the main spine of the story, there is also an interesting sidelight — an NGO bringing about AIDS awareness among the hill-people, and the hostile manner in which the information is received.

There is also a romantic angle to the story, with young Anant falling in love with a local resident, the pretty and headstrong Mallika, who is already engaged to her childhood friend, Avinash. Whether Anant succeeds in winning over Mallika or not, forms another interesting part of the plot.

There are a number of other characters — the guests, the host in whose house the tale is set, the domestic staff (comprising two intriguing hill males), a couple of children, a successful resident writer, the local police inspector, the local lawyer and even a cocker spaniel — all of whom add to the novel. Sudarshan has tried to etch each character with sincerity, and it shows.

The writing style gives a very Indian feel to the book, without the usual ‘Indian English’ that many writers resort to, especially with dialogues. While Justice Shinde does tend to pontificate, many of his conversations with his young assistant are quite thought-provoking.

While the murder itself is solved under slightly illogical conditions, there is enough room for the reader to speculate with the available ‘clues’ — which is what the ‘whodunit’ aficionado does to try and solve the case. I would say that this a very promising first attempt indeed. There are enough twists and turns to keep the reader absorbed.
If Sudarshan manages to control his urge to include too many angles in one tale, and if he can sustain the special relationship between Justice Shinde and his young law assistant Anant, I do not see why the author cannot embark on a series of mystery novels set in a legal background. It will make for interesting reading on A Nice Quiet Holiday!

A Nice Quiet Holiday
Aditya Sudarshan
2009, pp 224, Rs 250

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