Monday, October 22, 2012

Book Review- “Barnabas : Bombay’s First Private Detective”


Thank you BlogAdda, for sending me my very first book to review as a part of  your book review program. As a book lover, I was thrilled to receive a free book, and a good one at that. I hope this is the first of many such experiences! So here’s my take on

“Barnabas : Bombay’s First Private Detective”
 written by Sangeeta Nambiar, published by Westland Ltd.

As the name suggests, this is a “detective” story set in British India, and the protagonist is an unusually named young man, Barnabas C Mehta.
In addition to his unusual name, Barnabas also has an unusual upbringing, as a result of being the son of an Indian cook and the protégé of a well read, Indian at heart, British bachelor, his beloved “Francis Kaka”, who is also his father’s employer and friend. His past success at locating a missing husband, and the fact that the husband of the missing woman, Thomas Stanton wants to his wife to be found, as discreetly as possible, are the reasons why Barnabas is called to investigate the mysterious disappearance of an English woman, Rose Stanton.
 In the book, Barnabas combines a ready wit, a keen intelligence, a knack for observing the little things about ordinary lives, and the advantages of his background to ferret out clues from the multi layered colonial world of the British sahibs, memsahibs, their Indian help and various other Indian characters  . At a few  junctures  in the course of his ‘jasoos-giri ‘ , Barnabas comes up against a  racist police Inspector Finnigan , who is, in the manner of most professionals in detective stories, mostly antagonistic and dismissive of the efforts of the private detective.
It is a fast paced story, but somewhere near the middle of the book, I felt I could guess the identity and the motivation of the murderer, and started to lose interest in the book.  However, right at that point there came a twist in the tale that made me think twice about who the murderer might be. The story ends in a gathering of most of the people involved, to unmask and explain the motivations of the murderer.
As I read  the book,  I had a feeling of  familiarity, as if I had  seen or read  something  similar, but I just couldn’t  put my finger on it. Once I sat down to write this review, I realized, that whether intentionally or not, from the colonial setting to the unmasking of the murderer, the author has written in a simple, logical and elegant style, which has an Agatha Christie/Arthur Conan Doyle like feel to it.  Apart from the fact that the book is a page turner, the writing is also of the kind that conjures up mental pictures of the characters and the situations involved. In fact,  I had a sense of seeing the places, the people and hearing them speak, while I read this book and possibly that is the reason why, I have a few minor quibbles with the dialogue in some parts of the story. To name just two, in my opinion, in British India of the 1940s, a young English woman, is more likely to have described a person as being “mad” rather than having a ‘personality disorder’, and it seems unlikely that a twenty-something Indian man in the same period would have ‘pumped his fist victoriously in the air’ as a reaction to good news.
However, as I said earlier, these are very minor incongruities, in what is otherwise a very well written mystery. That and the fact that it is written by an Indian author, and is not autobiographical, chick-lit in English, is what makes it different from the crowd, and definitely worth a read.

Edited to Add: This post was originally published on Oct  18, but due to some rather over zealous spring cleaning of my drafts folder , I've managed to accidentally delete it from the published posts too!

Reply to Umashankar's comment on the original post
 "Emerging beyond the shadows of Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie is not everyone's cup of tea. I quite liked the way you have assessed the strengths and weaknesses of the book."

Thank you for your kind comment. Like I said, the book is well written and interesting enough for these minor incongruities to jar too much .

1 comment:

Sunita Banerji said...

Hi I am one of the best matrimonial detectives in Mumbai and being a private detective myself (and a female one at that), I love the fact how Sangeeta Nair has woven a detective story around historical facts and it would be fun to see how the backdrop of pre-independence influences the sequence of events as it moves through the various acts. Am going to definitely buy this book and publish a review on our website's blog.

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