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Bombay, where many a twain met!

Set in the Bombay of 1896, 'The Kidnapping Of Mark Twain' has two characters who turn into amateur sleuths to crack the mystery of the famous American writer who goes missing from the city.
Last Updated : 04 May 2024, 21:11 IST
Last Updated : 04 May 2024, 21:11 IST

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First, the good news. Indian detective fiction is alive, well, and flourishing. Period detective fiction, a sub-genre of the same, has seen some wonderful books being published, the period detail adding a special texture to the whole whodunnit genre.

The Kidnapping Of Mark Twain traverses the same space. Set in the Bombay of 1896, it has two characters who turn into amateur sleuths to crack the mystery of the famous American writer who goes missing from the city.

There is an adept interleaving of fact and fiction here. Mark Twain did visit Bombay in early 1896 when he was travelling around the world giving lectures and readings to pay off some debts. Some of the places, characters and incidents that Twain mentions in a book he subsequently wrote are expertly woven into the story here.

In this narrative, Twain and his family are met by Henry Baker, the American Trade Consul. After a convivial meeting followed by a lavish dinner at the ostentatious house of a local luminary, Twain suddenly goes missing the next day. At the same time, a girl is murdered. Her husband, accused of the crime, wields vast influence among the mill workers of Bombay. This leads to protests and strikes. Then, there is a band of jewel thieves out and about. The police are quite stretched, trying to handle all this; Baker and his friend, Maya Barton, have to do what they can to unravel the mystery of the missing writer.

There is another reason why Twain has to be found quickly and without any fuss. America, at this point, is still coming into its own, and Baker would rather not have a diplomatic fracas ensue over a famous American author going missing in British-ruled India. Through Baker, the author gives us a glimpse of how the Americans viewed the British at the time, how they were aghast at the way the British threw their weight around, and by the way they demanded obsequiousness from their juniors. However, Baker is also pragmatic enough to realise that it would help him to adopt some of these attitudes.

Both Baker and Barton are drawn as outsiders, who in their quest to fit in, forge a friendship. Baker is a commoner with no real connections in Bombay, though his Yale degree does open some doors. Barton is burdened by rumours of a past that casts her in a dubious light. But they both have an advantage that lets them socialise with everyone, including those from high society. Baker, who appears to be an amiable open man, comes from the land of the presumed rich. Barton, more of a maverick and rule-breaker, has good looks on her side. Predictably, there is a whiff of romance brewing between them but a spanner is put in these works by Barton’s attraction to another person.

The whole cast of characters that make up the story are all uniformly sharply drawn. Baker’s competitor for Barton’s affections, an American magician who is indulging in all sorts of doubtful activities, is an interesting character. The villain of the piece, a British preacher, is depicted as more sly and devious than really evil or dangerous.

There are many strands in the story dealing with the opium trade, thieving tribes and the labour conditions of mill workers, to name a few, and they are artfully folded into the narrative. Yet, when the crime is solved and all loose ends tied up, one is left slightly underwhelmed.

The author has an eye for detail and paints a vivid portrait of Victorian Bombay, a city that attracts all kinds — an American author, a German filmmaker, even a Serbian musician. The settings, be it the house of a rich businessman, the Watsons Hotel patronised by the well-heeled, Baker’s rooms at the Byculla Club or other areas in Bombay, all spring to life. The painstaking research has been adroitly translated onto the page.

There is mystery, murder, kidnapping, red herrings and lots more in this book but all of it plays out in a genteel manner. Even when Baker and Barton face peril, one does not sense any real danger to them, making this a cosy atmospheric read.

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Published 04 May 2024, 21:11 IST

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