Impressions off the back cover:
The book promises a family (murder) story, with a duo of investigators trying to piece together the murder puzzle to complete a picture of what happened. The plot, being family-oriented, would be having secrets, and may be difficult to solve if the family members are supportive of each other (which would make the story more spicy). Yet it is a family member who asks further investigation by the duo, so all may not be well. The story would make interesting reading, that’s for sure.
My thoughts on the book:
Sometimes, an author’s second book raises expectations, especially when the genre stays the same. But I prefer reading without any such limitation of expectation, unless its part of a series, in which case I’d look for continuity. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again… murder mysteries are something I find very interesting… maybe because of the curiosity to find out who was the killer.
Unlike his first novel, Sharath Komarraju catches the reader’s attention with the title of his second book, rather than the cover. “Banquet on the Dead”… questions immediately come, “Who is dead?” “Who are feasting on the victim?” “Why?” “Why was the person killed?” “Who is finding out all of the answers?”… most questions a mystery should raise. The cover design, I still can’t quite understand, the queen card, but the misty appearance around the card and the victim being a woman, somewhat makes the cover seem sensible, even though it doesn’t jump at you.
I’m going to focus on three parts of the story, as I did when I reviewed his first book. The victim, the detectives and the motive. These three, to me, make or break any mystery. The fourth, of somewhat muted importance, are the suspects.
The victim, Kauveramma, is a distinguished lady, one of the richest, if not the richest in the village. She stays at Kaveri Bhavan, named after her, the biggest house in the village. She’s considered as a dominating figure, to her family as well as to the town’s people. She is known to have a fear of water, and yet, the setting of her death is a well. Her reputation in the family is mixed, some like her, and others don’t, which is quite obvious as the story proceeds. I think, overall, Sharath manages to sketch her character well as the matriarch who gets some respect and some hatred from her family. Somewhat reminds me of Agatha Christie’s character Mrs. Boynton in Appointment with Death, but not a complete tyrant perhaps.
The inspector in-charge is Valmiki Nagarajan, who at first doesn’t suspect anything, but on insistence from the victim’s grandson Dr. Koteshwar Rao, decides to look into it further, with the help of Hamid Pasha. Pasha was once a crook, and having been on opposite sides with Nagarajan, now has a warm relationship with him. He’s as charming as Nagarajan is direct, as observant as Nagarajan is dismissive, and as talkative as Nagarajan is silent. One could say he’s nearly the complete opposite of Nagarajan. If yin and yang are the interdependent forces that balance the world, then Pasha and Nagarajan are the yin and yang that balance the “detectives” part of this story. I’m more impressed with the character sketching of Pasha, who is the more relaxed and calm of the two even though he is as equally determined to solve the mystery as the inspector is; this is evident from the scene where he chases a small clue all the way to Hyderabad. He is indeed as the back-cover describes him: a charming rogue with that flair for shayaris and an admirable curiousity. At times, I feel Sharath has been influenced by Sherlock Holmes in this sketching.
The suspects are family, and he takes the effort to bring in every bit of masala in detailing, the family gossips, the “compromises” to keep each other safe, the character detailing like how some are incompetent, and others are learned… the eagerness of one person pointing to the other as the criminal, and all the little things that matter. This part, that is of muted importance to me, has been done very well, and I think that it does bring an overall effect to the story since it revolves around them, as much as it does around Pasha and Nagarajan.
The motive of the criminal to do the deed… I’ve gone through the ending, and the plotting a few times, but I can’t quite place one thing as the motive, especially since at the end, it is shown that it wasn’t just one criminal. To the most part, I can attribute as a desire for wealth, since the victim was rich, but still I find that too obvious, and I’m left partly in doubt. Again, this is my personal view only, so maybe the story is open and shut completely and I’m not able to see it as such.
Having read a lot of murder mysteries, I think I could say with much certainty as to the identity of the “killer” much before the ending. And I was proved right, which I didn’t want. It sort of dulled the story for me, slightly. Also, I find that one part of the story has been hurried through, and it brings out an error that stands out. Something that could have been avoided. Even the approach to that one part felt out of place in an otherwise flowing narration.
A classic “whodunnit” mystery, with the character of the victim, the suspects and the detectives sketched quite beautifully, and even the execution of the murder to be in somewhat unexpected manner. One part jars the reader if he/she is paying attention to what he’s reading, rather than being just enthralled by the plot till that point, and the motive, though obvious to the most part is still not iron-clad. Masala sprinkled throughout the plot helps keep the reader’s attention hooked, but I find the identity of the killer can be seen much before if we connect the dots. Keeping with the back-cover, expectation is mostly met, and the ending gives a possible indication that this duo of detectives would be back with another case in the not-so-distant future. For that case, I wait eagerly.
Title: Banquet on the Dead
Author: Sharath Komarraju
Genre: Murder Mystery
Price: Rs. 250
Book ISBN: 9789381626986
(’12, Dec 03)