Murder is announced

Krishnan Srinivasan’s novel featuring retired diplomat Michael Marco and feisty private detective Koel Deb is peppy and perceptive.

Published : Jun 26, 2024 11:00 IST - 4 MINS READ

The novel is an enjoyable romp, embellished by the feisty heroine Koel’s joie de vivre.

The novel is an enjoyable romp, embellished by the feisty heroine Koel’s joie de vivre. | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStock

Krishnan Srinivasan, a former Foreign Secretary, has, after retirement, diverted himself and thousands of delighted readers with stories of criminal investigations by a low-key and soft-spoken Somali diplomat based in Kolkata, Michael Marco. After a distinguished diplomatic career, Marco came to Kolkata to research African presence in India, took assignments from the Indian government (which conferred a Bharat Ratna on him), and periodically assisted the Kolkata Police.

After setting out Marco’s activities in five earlier books, Ambassador Srinivasan has paired him with a young and ebullient former police officer and now private detective, Koel Deb (“Minnie” to close friends). Right Angle to Life is their second outing, though they investigate different cases that have hardly any links with each other. Koel was hit by a bullet in her left arm in an earlier police encounter with a known criminal and acquired a prosthetic arm, a half-pension, a Glock-17, and a Harley-Davidson Elektra. The motorcycle has been adapted to her injury and is now her principal mode of transport through Kolkata and neighbouring towns.

Right Angle to Life
By Krishnan Srinivasan
Har-Anand Publications
Pages: 195
Price: Rs.495

Right Angle to Life is straightforward. A prominent Mumbai-based film producer, Ranvir Sethi, has been murdered in his hotel room in Burdwan, two hours from Kolkata. He had gone there to locate a director, Vishnu Baras, who had made a students’ film, Daughter of the Clouds, about two decades ago. Judged as “softcore” by the moral norms of the times, both the film and its director had vanished from the public eye. But, on viewing the film much later, Sethi had detected a unique cinematic talent in the young filmmaker and wanted to sign him up for some of his own films.

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Sethi is killed on his first night in Burdwan. Given the victim’s national importance, the State Home Minister enlists Koel’s services to investigate the murder. In Burdwan, Koel encounters diverse personalities: the local police superintendent, the town mayor, a business tycoon who owns the film studio, the tycoon’s wife, a local trade unionist, and a few ruffians. She also meets a rather attractive person from Mumbai, Elem Hussain, who is friendly but seems to be stalking her, intentions unknown.

With the murder obviously tied to the two-decade-old film and its missing director, the local people make every effort to obstruct Koel, misdirect her, and threaten her with violence. But the energetic and dogged Koel gets the better of them, her prosthetic arm proving to be a particularly useful weapon when needed. She describes a savage attack in which her attacker “struck my raised bionic arm with a metallic thud”. She responds with a poke with her steel fingers, which brings him down “like a punctured balloon”.

Cover of Right Angle to Life

Cover of Right Angle to Life | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

Koel intuitively asks the right questions and coaxes the truth out of the characters until a sad and sorry tale of unrequited love and misplaced possessiveness explains the murder and exposes the story behind the film and its director.

Shrewd observer

Srinivasan describes people in a few deft words. A mayor has “the assured voice of a man of means approaching sixty”, and a policeman “walk[s] as if his feet hurt constantly”. The tycoon’s wife is a “self-conscious beauty and she knows how to impose it on an audience”. At the other end of the social scale, a taxi driver is “stick-thin with a supercilious expression and pretentious pony-tail”.

Srinivasan is also a shrewd observer of the social scene. At an upmarket reception in Kolkata, “the guests inched together, joined in forced heartiness, everyone milling about, passing and repassing like a pack of cards shuffled by a clumsy dealer”. The guests’ interactions consist of “mumbled introductions, meaningless cliches, unresponded enquiries, indifferent handshakes, enthusiastic references to the weather, sudden silences, and insincere enquiries about everyone’s state of health”.

Koel’s zest for life enlivens the book. She likes Elem Hussain’s looks (“a fashionable two-day-old unshaven face with sharp cheekbones, light-brown eyes, thick hair flopping over his forehead”). On the motorcycle, she enjoys having his “arms around my waist or his hands on my hip-bones”. It is an enjoyable romp, embellished by our feisty heroine’s joie de vivre.

The deaths examined by Michael Marco run parallel to Koel’s investigations. These cases appear briefly early in the book and then take up almost all of its last bit. The story, of two cousin sisters, involves identity theft, complex financial transactions, and a gruesome murder—all this is unravelled by the unassuming Somali diplomat.

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With the cheerful and buoyant Koel absent, these investigations are slow, efficient, and painstaking. Marco also provides the final links between the murder investigated by Koel and the one examined by him.

Right Angle to Life refers to alternative ways of looking at the various events that make up our life, seeing different meanings in human thought and action, and identifying patterns in disparate occurrences that would usually evade the casual observer. This is what makes Marco and Koel such good detectives and Srinivasan such a great writer.

Talmiz Ahmad is also a former diplomat who, however, lacks Srinivasan’s “right angle to life”.

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