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by Vikas Swarup
Doubleday, July 2008
550 pages
14.99 GBP
ISBN: 0385608152

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The best way to describe this book is in terms of its structure. The first nine pages consist of a newspaper column describing the murder of Vicky Rai, an event which has dominated Indian news since it occurred, two days previous to the writing of the column. Vivek 'Vicky' Rai was a millionaire industrialist and playboy with a long history of bad behaviour culminating in his shooting of a bar worker, Ruby Gill, who refused to serve him a drink. Although everyone knew that he had done this, his father, the corrupt Home Minister of Utter Pradesh, ensured that he was acquitted. Vicky threw a big party to celebrate his acquittal and at that party he was shot dead. The police sealed the party and arrest the six people found in possession of guns - a corrupt former Civil Servant, an American who claims to be a film producer, a 'tribal' from Jharkhand, an unemployed graduate with a record as a mobile-phone thief, an up-and-coming actress, and Jagannath Rai, Vicky's father. These are the six suspects.

The next section of the book 'Suspects' spends some 90 pages introducing us to each of these characters; in 'Motives' we have 374 pages telling the story of each suspect in more detail and explaining why they arrived at Vicky Rai's party with a gun; 'Evidence' devotes 35 pages to telling of the events of the party and its immediate aftermath; 'Solution' is 30 pages of dazzling twists as various solutions are propounded and finally the 9 pages of 'Confession' give us the truth of the matter. Now I tabulate in this manner in order to emphasise that well over 450 pages are devoted to the telling of the stories of each of the six suspects and each of these stories is, in the main, an isolated one. Swarup employs differing narrative techniques for each of these stories. Thus those of Mohun Kaur, the corrupt Civil Servant, and Eketi, the 'tribal', are told in the third-person; Shabnam Saxena (the actress) in a first-person diary; Larry Page (the American) and Munna Mobile (the thief) in traditional first-person; Jagannath Rai solely through the medium of phone conversations.

In trying to assess SIX SUSPECTS (Swarup's first book Q AND A has been adapted for the cinema as SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE) I start from the position that my knowledge of Indian literature is, I am ashamed to admit, almost zero. Then by chance I came across the following comments on Indian writers by David Baddiel in The (UK) Times 'the books are always very long, the comedy is always very broad, the moral emphasis is always very foregrounded, and blimey there are a lot of characters'. Now I have no doubt that this is an absolutely absurd generalisation when applied to as diverse and rich a subject as Indian fiction. But the description certainly applies to SIX SUSPECTS. First it is very long! 550 pages is a lot. And given this, it is remarkable that my interest never waned for an instant. The structural techniques play a large part in this; each of the six stories is in its own way utterly compelling. They cover a vast sweep and every level of Indian society is examined - this is 'sociological suspense' on a truly epic scale. Swarup's mastery of narrative impetus is extraordinary. Next the comedy is broad. This comedy is concentrated in the stories of Mohun Kaur and above all Larry Page, and, especially in the case of the latter, is very broad; Swarup has a great deal of fun with American ignorance but he gets away with it because Page is basically a sympathetic character. The moral emphasis is indeed 'very foregrounded' most especially in the stories of Eketi and Munna Mobile but it runs through every part of the book; this is, and I use a cliche because sometimes cliches are the best description, a 'searing indictment' of Indian political and social life. The story of Eketi in particular, a subject which I knew nothing of, is utterly shocking. But moral indignation runs throughout the book. Finally there are a lot of characters! Indeed at times I wanted a 'character index' at the back of the book just to check out who some of the people were. And while many of the characters we encounter (beyond our six suspects) are vivid and memorable, some inevitably are less than that.

It is impossible to give more than indications in a short review of the breadth and depth of approaches in a book as rich and diverse as SIX SUSPECTS. One important point to make however is that the level of realism employed in the six stories varies widely; as a general rule it may said that Swarup never allows realism to stand in the way of the much more important moral, political or social truths which he is attempting to convey. This includes a use of folk-lore and 'woo-woo', which latter however the reader is at liberty to read just as she or he wishes.

While SIX SUSPECTS is very distinctively Indian this is not to say there are not constant references to a global world (the interaction of Western and Indian influences and culture is a constant theme) ; there are also references to the Western mystery. From the PI who styles himself on Sherlock Holmes (a comic reference) we move to the much deeper and tragic reference in the story of Eketi. Eketi is in fact an Andaman Islander and the most famous (if not only?) Andaman Islander in the Western mystery canon is, of course, he who appears in Doyle's appallingly and casually racist account as 'Tonga' in THE SIGN OF THE FOUR. Swarup however is not only referring back to this but constantly shows how modern-day Indians treat the Islanders in a similarly appalling racist and imperialist manner. In a different mode and beyond the purview of mystery fiction Larry Page is a kind of dumbed-down Candide.

When turning finally to the question of assessment I find myself forced to question one of my own dearest tenets - that concerning the horror of any phrase involving 'transcending the bounds of the genre'. I don't think SIX SUSPECTS does that but it does push the bounds; and it does so because it applies what I take to be a very Indian consciousness to the genre. This is not to say that in the denouement Sarup does not use a battery of plot tricks and revelations which would fit neatly in any superior traditional mystery; he certainly does have these devices at his disposal. But the bulk of the book, with its separate stories, has a reach far beyond the conventional Western mystery, a reach which I take it comes from its Indian heritage. I certainly would not judge everything to be triumphantly successful; in particular some of the moralising at times struck me as forced in terms of the characters delivering the moral.

If you like small-scale detailed psychological examinations you may find this book is not for you. But in my judgement SIX SUSPECTS is massive in scale, massive in scope and, above all, massive in achievement; it does, and I can hardly believe I am saying this, push the boundaries in terms of what mystery fiction can mean and accomplish.

Reviewed by Nick Hay, February 2009

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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