As someone who has dabbled in fiction writing, I must say a whodunit is one of the toughest genres to write. The whole point is to keep the readers guessing till the last page. In order to achieve this effect, you need an ensemble of characters and the situations designed in such a way that some amount of suspicion points in everyone’s direction. It can be really tricky to maintain the balance between making the story sound real and still maintain the suspense. In this aspect, I must say Sharath Komarraju does a commendable job in his book ‘Banquet on the Dead’
I have seen some reviewers comment on the paper quality, the cover etc. I usually do not find it relevant but here I must say the cover design was done excellently. As a reader, sampling an unknown author, sometimes the cover can be the decider. Seeing the cover of this book I definitely felt like picking up this book. The title is also quite intriguing. But again, when choosing a title for a story, there is this fine line of balance between relevance and allure. Here I must say the balance tipped in the favor of allure.
Let me start of with some of the things I liked most about this book. The brilliant attempt to create an altogether new Indian private detective ‘Hamid Pasha’ is the first thing that comes to my mind. With so much detective literature already written, it is indeed very difficult to avoid falling to the temptation of borrowing from some of the popular works. Sharath has definitely tried not to go by the stereotypes and sketch his own unique character. The next aspect I must appreciate is the effort that has gone into sketching out so many different unique characters. The reader can distinctly remember each one of the characters, even the minor ones. Then of course we have the elaborate manner in which the whole crime was committed. Readers of crime expect a crime to be intellectually appealing. A simple case of knifing does not make an interesting story. The novelty of the manner in which the crime was committed in this story is indeed undeniable and it is not entirely unbelievable either.
There is nothing called a perfect work of art. As they say even the moon has dark spots. A review cannot be complete without pointing out some of the failings. To start with, none of the characters manage to establish an emotional connect with the reader. Frankly I would not have given a damn even if somebody had run a knife through the Hamid Pasha and he had died at the end of the story. Then there is no back story in the main story. A short detective story can relentlessly pursue on track of the investigation. But a novel needs some drama in between. This story brings in the drama where it is least needed: towards the end. The idea of lining up suspects and throwing suspicions one after the other is so cliched and formulaic and hardly the idea of drama that can excite a reader. Overall this novel has little of interest outside of the facts related to the crime, which makes it a bit of a dry read. Here and there, one can see some halfhearted attempts to describe the history of the family, to give interesting snippets about the environs and to build some kind of chemistry between police officer Nagarajan and detective Pasha. I feel the author should have taken one or more of these aspects and infused more life into them.
Last but not the least, I found all the ‘Miyan’, ‘Sab’, ‘Babu’ etc. quite artificial and grating. It is nice to have people easily distinguishable by their way of speech and to add distinct local flavor. But mixing languages arbitrarily does not cut much ice with me. A man speaking English with local accent would have been interesting. But in this story, none of the conversations happen in English. So why have all these vernacular form of addresses in a translated conversation?
Overall, I must say it is nice to see a murder mystery by a young Indian writer, writing in English. I feel most of the English writing by Indian authors have been of a more serious nature. The only entertainment literature genre in English to have taken off in a big way is campus romance. So it is heartening to see publishers encouraging genres like murder mysteries, fantasy and science fiction. With time, these genres will evolve and Indian writers will stand tall among their global counterparts. I sincerely hope publishers continue to encourage this kind of fiction from Indian authors. As readers, we must patronize writers like Sharat to help Indian English entertainment fiction evolve beyond campus romances.