Books: Crime Fiction

Master Minds

Shylashri Shankar is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
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Three veterans won’t let you go

IN THE BESTSELLER CODE, Jodie Archer and Matthew Jockers present an algorithm that their computer used to scan 20,000 books, and with 80 per cent accuracy, picked those that made the New York Times bestseller list. John Grisham, Stephen King and Danielle Steele were among the all-time bestselling authors. According to The Bestseller Code, readers want a colloquial style, a decisive main character, a fast moving rhythmic plot, a small set of central topics especially if they contrast with each other in an interesting way (like crime and domesticity). Bestselling characters make things happen. No hesitation will be tolerated by readers. Human closeness— not only romance but also talking to a friend or shopping with one’s parent—is important and ought to take up about 30 per cent of the book.

Going by these criteria, John Grisham’s recent book, Camino Island, will not make the cut. The story itself is interesting. A heist gone sour and the investigation that follows. Five priceless and insured manuscripts by F Scott Fitzgerald are stolen from the vault of Princeton University library. Will the insurance company, with the help of a writer, get it back from the bookseller they suspect of having bought them?

The problem is in the telling of the tale. Grisham tells and tells and tells every character’s backstory. We learn how the heist goes sour and a few thieves are caught by the Feds. Then we move on to one of the main characters in the story, Bruce Cable, and his story of how he came to own a book shop on Florida’s Camino Island and started a rare book collection. Could he possess the Fitzgerald manuscripts?

That is what the insurance company bribes Mercer Mann to find out. Mercer is a writer recently fired from her teaching job, with two books in hand, a writer’s block and a hefty student loan. Going to Camino Island is a homecoming of sorts since she spent her childhood summers with her grandmother in a cottage on the beach. Mercer has not returned there since her grandmother’s untimely death. The writerly community in Camino Island is full of angst, drinking problems and gossipy characters. We watch Mercer hook up with Bruce and quite quickly, we are at the denouement.

Camino Island is written in a way that you feel as detached from the characters as the author must have done. You don’t root for anyone, and you don’t care if they get the manuscripts back. You don’t care about justice being done because frankly, Princeton University can afford the loss, as can the insurance company. The emphasis on backstories means that the reader continues to turn the page waiting for the story to begin. Well, by then one has reached the last chapter.

Comparing it to an earlier Grisham novel like The Client would be like comparing apples and oranges. Mind you, the pace is rapid and it is a page turner. What I liked was the sense of ease, the calm narration, and way one moves seamlessly from these back stories of each character to the issue at hand (retrieval of the manuscripts) and back again. But as I said, I was waiting for the story to settle into a Client style mode, which it never did. Read it on a short airplane ride and leave it behind.

Michel Bussi’s Don’t Let Go, on the other hand, is a masterly thriller. The theme is about what justice entails to those who feel wronged. How far will one go to get justice, and whether the act will assuage the grief. Bussi’s novel definitely ticks some of the boxes of The Bestseller Code. It is about human closeness, about obsession, and how one copes with a tragedy. Husband (Martial Bellian), wife (Liane) and six-year-old daughter (Sopha) holiday in Reunion. Liane goes up to the hotel room. She doesn’t return for an hour. Martial follows, enters the room with hotel staff and finds bloodstains. He is upset and calls the police, who show up.

Bussi highlights the racial tension, which rises as does the suspense. Did the husband do it? The police captain (Aja Purvi) and her lieutenant (Christos Konstantinov) think so, especially when Martial goes on the run with Sopha. During the manhunt, they find that Martial has a lot to hide including a past that is closely linked to a tragedy on the island.

Bussi, like Grisham, uses the viewpoint of an omniscient narrator. We hop into the heads of the husband, the child (in first person), the police captain, the lieutenant and his girlfriend. But unlike Camino Island, in Bussi’s tale, we feel very invested in the fates of the characters including the bit players. The cameos are beautifully sketched. Christos’ girlfriend, Imelda with her five children, who devours crime fiction and fancies herself as Miss Marple, is an especially enchanting character. Till the end we don’t know if Martial is a killer or the innocent party. Bussi’s day job as a professor of geography shows up in the climax where a neat geographical anomaly plays a key role. A key alibi is also linked to geography, which I realised only after reaching the end.

There are a couple of places where the artifice does show—there is a point where the murderer could have struck but did not. But that can be forgiven because the novel is pitch-perfect. Bussi’s earlier novel, Blackwater Lilies, was a haunting read, where he turned all known tropes about crime fiction on their heads. This one is laced with an Agatha Christie-like flavour that enlivens and lightens the weighty themes. Aja and Christos are a very interesting duo, who I hope, will grace more pages in a series. A definite edge-of-your pants thriller to be devoured on a winter afternoon with a mug of coffee.

JP Delaney in The Girl Before has produced a psychological thriller that has an interesting view of architecture. What if the real function of architecture is to help people resist temptation, to make them better people, and to build a different kind of society? This is the premise underlying One Folgate Street, a house with one bedroom with no inner walls, no cupboards, no pictures, no electric sockets, state-of-the-art technology, and huge windows looking on to a tiny garden. Not big, highly minimalist, but feels spacious, thinks a prospective tenant. The owner (Edward) is the head of Monkford architects who decides on tenants based on how they respond to a questionnaire which contains questions such as ‘make a list of every possession you consider essential to your life’, ‘when I am working I can’t relax until it’s perfect (agree/disagree)’, and so on. The successful applicant would have to sign an agreement containing 200 conditions. The story is told from the viewpoints of two tenants—Emma (the earlier tenant) and Jane (the present tenant). Jane, who has lost a still-born baby, moves in, and finds that events in her life have taken on an eerie resemblance to that of Emma’s, who was found dead at the bottom of the stairs in the house under mysterious circumstances. While Jane is single, Emma had broken up with her live-in boyfriend (Simon) whom she had promised that everything would be different after moving into the house. Jane and Emma have relationships with Edward. Both women are damaged in some way—Jane had given birth to a still-born child, and Emma was recovering from being a victim of an armed robbery. As Jane delves further, she discovers frightening layers of secrets surrounding Emma. As more coincidences emerge, Jane fears that she too might meet the same end. Talk about a page-turner. I wolfed it down in one sitting.

Delaney is the pseudonym of British adman Tony Strong who, in an interview, said he wanted to explore the weird and deeply obsessive psychology of minimalism and what happens when people follow it too far. As one of the characters in the book says, you can tidy all you like, but you can’t run away from the mess in your own head.