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If you've heard of the film Slumbag Millionaire perhaps you know that it was based on a novel called Q&A. That was Vikas Swarup's first novel and I absolutely adored it. When I learned that his second novel was now available in paperback, I wanted it so much that I paid the full whack on amazon; that's not something I do very often.
~ So what's it about?~
Vicky Rai is the son of an influential politician and is a thoroughly nasty piece of work. With his corrupt and violent playboy lifestyle he has left such a trail of havoc and destruction that his politician father has spent a fortune bailing him out of trouble and buying off (or killing off) those he has harmed. When Rai is shot dead at his own party nobody is really very surprised that his young and dirty little life has been brought to an abrupt halt.
The party is a prime example of Rai's lack of subtlety. He threw it to celebrate his acquittal for a murder that everybody knows he committed. When your old man has good contacts, intimidating thugs on the payroll and deep pockets to buy influence, what's a dead waitress between friends? When the police arrive at the party and check out the guests and staff they find six very different people, each in possession of guns. These form the six suspects of Vikas Swarup's second novel.
~ The Six Suspects ~
The six suspects are labelled as the Bureaucrat, the Actress, the Tribal, the Thief, the Politician and the American. It's all a bit too much like Cluedo for my liking. The politician in the library with a lead pipe anyone? Every character is a cartoon of exaggerated proportions.
Mohan Kumar is the Bureaucrat - a corrupt official but then that seems to be the only type you'll find in Indian novels. As the result of a totally ludicrous coincidence of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, he develops a split personality, swinging between the hard-drinking womaniser his friends and family know and a man possessed by the reincarnated spirit of Mahatma Gandhi. Try to suspend your disbelief as we watch him swing between the two personalities.
The Actress is Shabnam Saxena, a vain and lazy woman who's heading for the age at which the romantic leads start drying up and get replaced with so-called 'character' roles. When she receives a letter from a girl who appears to be her 'double' it's so tempting to train up her doppelganger to do all the dull and boring work that she can't be bothered to do herself. You just know it's going to all go horribly wrong.
The so-called Tribal is Jiba Korwa, a little jet-black man from the Andaman Islands, who fulfils the role of the book's 'noble savage'. He's the contrast to the other less honourable suspects. He's been roped in by an anthropologist to try to steal back a precious and very holy relic that's been stolen from his island and carries a really bad curse. He and the anthropologist spend the book bouncing around India following the trail of disasters wrought by the relic which eventually turns up at Rai's house. Or does it?
The Thief is a small-scale slum-dwelling crook known as 'Munna Mobile'. He scrapes a living for himself, his mother and his adopted sister - a blind and badly deformed girl whose birth defects resulted from the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal - by stealing and fencing mobile phones. When he steals a mobile from a man in a fancy car it leads to him finding a suitcase full of money with which he decides to change his life. Passing himself off as a wealthy young man about town, he falls in love with a poor little rich girl without either of them knowing who the other really is.
The Politician is Home Minister Jagganath Rai - Vicky Rai's father. There's only so much a father can take before the accumulated sins of the son become more than just an embarrassment. But would a father really commit the ultimate sin of killing his own child?
And finally, there's the American, Larry Page, a fork-lift truck-driver from hicksville who is repeatedly confused with the inventor of google, leading to plenty of mix-ups, some more preposterous than others. Larry has travelled to India in search of love with his online pen-pal. Although he's never met her he has already sent her a few thousand dollars to arrange their wedding. Yep, you can tell exactly where that plot's going, can't you? The google-inventor mix up leads to a bizarre kidnap plot and an outcome that will have you not so much gasping with surprise as shaking your head and murmuring 'yeah, like that's going to happen?'
~ Whodunnit? Who Cares?~
As the book progresses you could be forgiven to think that there can't be too many of India's billion plus population who don't have a motive to kill the despicable victim and that's part of the problem. It's not easy to give a damn who did it when they appear to have done society a big favour.
~ Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple? ~
Of course a whodunnit needs a sleuth to solve the clues and enlighten the reader. In this case it's investigative journalist Arun Advani. He writes in a turgid and ultra-dated style that will baffle most readers but is actually a pretty good parody of how Indian journalists use the English language. Even knowing that and finding the style amusing when I read Indian newspapers, in this setting of a novel the pseudo-news reports made me cringe every time.
~ So is it any good? ~
Six Suspects contains about 250 pages of a compelling good read which would be pretty good if the book wasn't 558 pages long. Seldom have I read a book that was more in need of savage editing. My greatest bug-bear with Six Suspects is the contrived and clumsy structure. It cuts back and forth between newspaper articles, television transcripts and letters interleaved between over-long chapters.
Swarup sets the scene of the murder with a newspaper article then moves into the second phase called 'Suspects' in which he introduces the potential killers one by one. The next phase is called 'Motives' and lasts 370 long and often dull pages. The third phase is called 'Evidence' and is followed by a section called 'Solution' before we finally limp to the revelation of who actually did it. I can't remember if I was more frustrated or disappointed when I got to the end and decided that it had all been rather a big waste of time. I'm obviously not going to tell you who did it, only that I felt totally cheated by the ending.
This formulaic approach is stifling especially during the 'Motives' section. In a sharper, better edited book I'd have expected to see the author swing back and forth between the characters, interweaving the six stories instead of dishing out indigestible lumps of text. Instead we get overlong chapters on each character. By the time you've got through each character's motives you'll probably be struggling to remember who the other people were.
The differing styles and degrees of believability get in the way of continuity. Is this supposed to be gritty real-life drama or second rate magic-realism? Your guess is as good as mine. The man possessed by Mahatma Gandhi just doesn't fit with the more down-to-earth tales of the other suspects. The contrived girlie diary style of the actress is too cheesy to bear and the kidnapped American plot-line is just plain ridiculous.
At times it feels as if Swarup tried to write a screenplay rather than a novel and got so constrained by his self-imposed structure that he lost touch with what he was trying to do. He appears to have started out trying to link his second book to events of the first by throwing in obscure references to characters that he created in Q&A but he never develops those plotlines.
~ Am I the only person who thinks this is rubbish?~
Before writing a book review I sometimes take a quick reality check to find out what other people have said. I popped over to Amazon.co.uk where readers almost universally loved this book. I was confused and wondered if somehow they'd been reading a different book from me. I read a lot of books by Indian writers and books about India and for me Six Suspects is absolutely third rate but I may be in a minority of one for not lauding it as a masterpiece.
Many readers commented that they were confused by the names used in the book and I think that's a fair point. If you aren't familiar with basic Indian English and some of the common Hindi words that litter the book, it must be quite confusing. However that doesn't bother me at all - my objection is to the mish-mash of styles and the turgid structure that kill this book deader than a corrupt playboy.