A network of crime

A network of crime

Anti-Social Network
Piyush Jha
2014, pp 192
RS: 195

After Mumbaistan and Compass Box Thriller, Piyush Jha’s latest novel, Anti-Social Network is the third in the Mumbaistan crime - thriller series.

Set in Mumbai and sprinkled with local dialect, Anti-Social Network focuses on the misuse of social networking sites and the internet, extortion rackets and drugs, ethical and unethical hacking.

Inspector Virkar, the protagonist, is attempting to apprehend a certain Usman Teacher. The said teacher manages to escape because of communication that was bungled up between the policemen.

And, in the meantime, as the prologue shows, crimes have been taking place in Mumbai. Gruesome murders, with bodies stabbed and mutilated, are committed, as Virkar seems to believe, by a girl whose only identifying feature is her long straight hair. Her abilities include an expert evasion of capture, as well as an uncanny knack of keeping blood off her clothes despite the violence of her deeds.

There’s also Naina Rai, a psychology lecturer and counsellor, and Richard, one of the young men she counsels. Richard is, as is revealed early on, a computer hacker and a drug addict. Both Naina and Richard become inextricably drawn into Virkar’s investigation.

There’s a fair element of suspense in the novel, as the murders seem baffling. Virkar stumbles into a network of young men and women who surreptitiously shoot videos, blackmail their victims, and use the extortion money for nefarious purposes, drugs included.

However, they are also clever enough to hide their tracks and evade the police, and smart enough to remove traces of their online activities, and to pin the blame on another, a girl who conveniently happens to be missing. And Virkar’s investigation into the murders also brings him to the group’s attention, and then he is stalked. Along with, apparently, Naina.

The story and the murders are intriguing in themselves. Virkar’s frustration at the dead ends and his irritation at Richard’s computer speak is pretty convincing. Richard himself is an interesting character, brilliant despite his addiction.

He is tech savvy and knows enough to subtly ‘bribe’ Virkar into sponsoring vacations for him, much to the inspector’s fury. Naina Rai has a good heart and is willing to whisk child labourers away from their workplaces to give them a good life and possibly an education, an impression she manages to keep for a while. Usman Teacher is a canny man who knows when to back down and co-operate.

Anti-Social Network does, however, suffer from too much telling and not enough showing. Virkar’s thoughts and doings and Richard’s thoughts and doings, as well as those of other characters, are told through narrative.

Perhaps revealing their actions and musings through dialogue or action would have helped with deeper characterisation. There are points in the book when the revelation of the inner workings of Virkar’s mind, his indecisions and his nightly trips and sojourns, are expressed such that it is difficult to connect with the character.

There are also instances when character pasts are revealed in dry prose. Perhaps the essay-like tone of telling could have been toned down to ensure the story flows smoother. As such, while the book does have memorable characters at first glance, characterisation eventually falls a little flat. Dialogue could also have been less dramatic.

However, the crime itself is elaborate, and the use of social networking sites by a group of ambitious and bloodthirsty youth shocking, and the plot suspenseful. The ‘anti-social’ network has a knack of targeting students who are vulnerable or otherwise susceptible to extortion, and the use of drugs as both lure and a mode of sustenance is chilling.

If only the staid writing had been a little more fluent, the telling a little less obvious, the showing more elaborate, and the dialogue more realistic, the book would have been more intriguing.