Book review: Six suspects
Author: Vikas Swarup
Publisher: Black Swan
Price: Rs 406
After peddling 'millionaire' dreams with his international bestseller Q&A, diplomat-turned-author Vikas Swarup doles out a murder mystery that has all the trappings of a Bollywood potboiler. Little wonder, they're already talking about making a film based on this one.
The plot's simple. Vicky Rai, the son of a high-profile minister, is shot dead by one of the guests at his own party. The police find six people with a gun in their possession. They're an assorted lot - a film actress, a mobile thief, the deceased's dad, an American fork-lift operator, a tribal from the Andamans and an ex-bureaucrat-turned Gandhian - and each had a motive to see Rai dead. "The murder may be messy but the truth's messier," it's with these words an investigative journalist starts "combing the life histories of the six suspects" to find the real culprit.
Swarup's fertile imagination has helped cultivate the plot with the help of these six characters. He uses a different narrative style and tense for each character. Swarup borrows heavily from breaking news stories to create his characters. So Rai is Manu Sharma (convicted of Jessica Lal murder), Sanjeev Nanda (BMW hit-and-run case) and Salman Khan (killing blackbucks!), all rolled into one. The American (suitably named Larry Page, after the Google inventor) has come to India to marry his love, the Nietzsche-spouting film actress (only, she doesn't know about it). The bureaucrat lurches between debauchery and sainthood, while the mobile thief comes close to the 1970s' Angry Young Man. The most incredulous is the tribal, from the little-known Onge tribe in the Andamans (Swarup quotes Googled sources in the acknowledgements), who comes to the mainland in quest for an ancient Shivalinga. Of all the characters, it's that of the don-turned-minister of the likes of Shibu Soren and Mohammed Shahabuddin, that is the most credible of the lot, sadly.
In his attempt to make the book newsworthy, Swarup tries hard to weave front-page news stories into the plot. Through his characters, he desperately tries to find a way to link Bhopal Gas Tragedy, Osama Bin Laden and Jessica Lal together. The book also features Q&A's protagonist Ram Mohammed Thomas and Salim Ilyasi. The effort is obvious and at times it seems desperate. Thankfully, the writer manages to keep his pace and much like his previous book, he manages to keep the suspense till the end.
What works for this book is its plot. It's a classic whodunnit - with its twists and turns - and is a good pick for leisure reading. Where it fails is in the cliches. Like Q&A, it portrays a side of India every Westerner wants to see - dirt, grime, poverty, slums, corruption, bureaucracy, debauchery, ignorance, illiteracy, religion, glamour and Bollywood. But unlike Q&A's distinct 'this-is-how-it-is-here' tone, this one's exaggerated. Like a Hindi potboiler, Six Suspects has action, drama and emotion - a complete entertainment package. Where it lacks is a good storyline and editing. It's Bollywood in pages!