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by Ram Murali
Harper, June 2024
363 pages
ISBN: 0063319306

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Ram Murali's DEATH IN THE AIR, is inspired by Agatha Christie's locked-room formula and James Hilton's LOST HORIZON, but is far better than Christie and Hilton could muster. It's a smart, empathetic, provocative debut novel. Thirty-eight-year-old lawyer Ro (short for Rohit) Krishna is an American of Indian descent who has lived in a lot of places. A graduate of tony Dartmouth, he knows how to navigate the "minefield of attire" that is an acquaintance's fortieth birthday party in the Bahamas in "shoulder season." When not carefully coordinating his polo and accessories, he carefully bottles his anger at his racist boss.

The characters' names tend to be allusions. For instance, Ro's Jaeger-downing friend in the Bahamas, who is carefully attuned to taxi-racketeering wealth, is named for Rollo of Normandy, a ninth-century Viking ancestor of William the Conqueror (of England).

With friends like this, Ro needs a change of scenery, or something. A month later, when the racist boss destroys his career, Ro makes plans to recuperate at Samsara, a New Age resort in India. His father in Del Mar happens to know the owner. The kind of spa where the Beatles' version of "Eastern" religion thrived, Samsara may help Ro to figure out the next phase of his life.

Of course, once he arrives, he walks into trouble. Everyone wears kurta pajama, which is liberating or appropriative depending on who they are and why they are there. A Western movie star trying to break into Bollywood, over-managed by his agent, rubs noses with the uber-wealthy, sometimes political, and possibly criminal elites of three continents. Yoga consists of sleeping on the floor--in a spiritually aware way, of course.

There's a Diogenes Club style messaging system. There's a beautiful, mysterious woman, Amrita Dey, who has very unusual turquoise eyes. Ro and Amrita click--and then she loses her expensive watch and is found murdered--with the watch recovered, but on the wrong wrist. Samsara management enlists Ro to solve the murders, and he becomes the Poirot of this Shangri-La. What his investigations uncover about Amrita and her associates lead him to bigger revelations about the 1947 Partition of India. This mass-murderous event (estimated deaths: over a million) had always been at the back of his consciousness but did not, Ro insisted, shape his identity or cause him any loss of sleep. At Samsara, it does. It ties together the global Indian diaspora in important, disturbing ways. Ultimately, Ro must not only solve Samsara's murders--as they rack up, of course--but determine that he is Indian and what that will mean to him in the future.

DEATH IN THE AIR is a strong meditation on diaspora, justice, and identity that proves that formula fiction genres can be adapted to do surprisingly good work. I look forward to Murali's next novel.

Rebecca Nesvet is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay and co-edits Reviewing the Evidence.

Reviewed by Rebecca Nesvet, June 2024

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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