Book review: Murder with Bengali Characteristics - whodunnit in a China-ruled India
Shovon Chowdhury’s novel follows a familiar template, but with an irrestible conceit; however, it is let down by relentless quips and missed opportunities
Murder with Bengali Characteristics starts unsurprisingly with a dead body in the first paragraph, but the double-take comes with the next line: "Inspector An Li frowned."
Shovon Chowdhury's novel is set a couple of decades in the future. There has been a war of some sort, China rules much of Asia, New Delhi is now radioactive and Calcutta is the capital of the Bengal Protectorate under Chinese occupation. As a conceit for a novel, this is irresistible.
Murder follows a familiar template. The cop protagonist is much more honest and competent than his superiors and most of his colleagues. He fights politics, venality and incompetence to close the case. Calcutta is not a desireable beat; he has self-exiled himself there due to bad luck in love.
But one suspects that writing a whodunnit wasn't Chowdury's primary objective. Yes, there's a crime, a criminal organisation or two, incompetent and corrupt officials, an indefatigable cop, some too-clever-by-half kids and a tricky solution, but the plot is really a vehicle for satire.
Chowdhury's targets are many and varied, but there's a considerable amount of inside baseball. The reader who's not up on Indian stereotypes and politics surely misses a lot; I have little doubt I did. Some of the more obvious are references to Bengal's Communist politics and practices: unions that keep "ancient waiters" working into their nineties, for instance.
But there are also references that must, one imagines, go over the heads of many Indian readers. There's a reference, for example, to the infamous Li Gang, and another to a Chinese internet company known as "TwentyCent". Inflation, perhaps; an inside joke, certainly.
In spite of clear evidence that Chowdhury keeps himself well-informed about the minutiae of news in other parts of Asia, the China in Murder is used more as a foil for jokes about things Indian than as a platform for serious geopolitical commentary. It's not a particularly realistic portrayal - it probably wasn't meant to be, but this feels like a missed opportunity.
Whether Murder with Bengali Characteristics works depends how one reads it. It's a competent, if perhaps slightly overpopulated, murder mystery with an interesting premise; Inspector An Li might well return for further cases, especially since there's an ironic aside about Agatha Christie's popularity in China. The novel has its moments as a speculative near-future in which artificial intelligence has got out of hand and devices develop personalities. And while the Chinese occupation of Bengal is best not taken too literally, it is nevertheless a thought-provoking idea.
Murder with Bengali Characteristics by Shovon Chowdhury (Aleph Book Company)
Asian Review of Books