Thursday, 27 August 2020

Midnight at Malabar house by Vaseem Khan

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

Midnight at Malabar House is the start of a brand-new series for Vaseem Khan, featuring Inspector Wadia, India’s first female detective.

Like his hugely popular Inspector Chopra series, this new series is set in Bombay, but this time, Khan has taken a step back in time to 1950. India has only recently won independence and the scars of Partition are still raw.

The chimes of midnight have barely died away at the start of a new decade, when Inspector Wadia receives a call summoning her to Malabar House. There, with a New Year’s Eve party still in full swing, the body of its host, James Herriot, has been found dead in his study, his throat cut and his trousers missing.

It would be easy for Persis to accept a simple solution to the problem in front of her, and indeed her superiors are anxious for her to do just that. But something about the situation just does not add up, and Persis refuses to let things go.

In some ways, Persis’ single-minded pursuit of the truth reminded me of The Bridge’s Saga Noren. Like all the best detectives, she is an outsider. Not only is she a lone woman in a male-dominated world, but she is a Parsee, a follower of Zoarastrianism, a minority religion in a country dominated by tensions between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. She can also be ruthless, blinkered and not a little selfish. But as readers, we see her vulnerabilities, and how much she is prepared to sacrifice in the cause of justice. Like her sometime partner in detection, forensic scientist Archie Blackfinch, we know we are going to hang on for the ride.

Perhaps in honour of the time period in which it is set, Midnight at Malabar House is constructed much like a piece of Golden Age detective fiction, complete with a climactic assembly of all the suspects. But those who have become accustomed to the cosy, humorous style of the Kahn’s Inspector Chopra series may be taken aback by the grittier nature of this new series.

Indeed, those who cling to rosy notions of the benefits Britain brought to India may be less that pleased by Persis' (and Khan’s) uncompromising views. Khan is looking at India’s struggle for independence from the opposite side from the lens from his fellow Red Hot Chilli Writer, Abir Mukherjee, but his criticism of the British is no less trenchant. From the asset stripping by the East India Company, to the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh, to the Bengal famine and clumsy handling of Partition, the sins of Empire are laid bare. But at a time when Britain is being called upon to have an honest conversation about its past, a book like this, which slips its history lessons between the pages of a crime thriller, feels necessary and welcome.

I look forward to diving further into the world of Inspector Persis Wadia.

Winner of the 2021 Historical Dagger Award for Historical Crime Fiction from the Crime Writers Association.  

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Smoke and Ashes by Abir Mukherjee

Avoid If You Dislike: confronting the sins of Empire

Perfect Accompaniment: a milky tea and a cucumber and chutney sandwich

Crime Fiction, Historical Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Friday, 14 August 2020

This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It

Many years ago, I read Tsitsi Dangarembga’s debut novel, Nervous Conditions, when it won the Commonwealth Writers Prize. It is a book that has stayed with me for a long time. It told the story of Tambudzai, a young girl growing up on a poor homestead in pre-independence Zimbabwe who, like Adunni in Abi DarĂ©’s The Girl With the Louding Voice, burns with a desire for education.

After a long interlude, during which she focused on her career as a film maker, Dangarembga wrote a sequel, The Book of Not. And now, with This Mournable Body, the trilogy reaches the late twentieth century. Tambu, now middle aged, has just thrown away a good job at an advertising agency in Harare because white men on the staff have taken credit for her work. So now, despite the education she fought so hard to achieve, she finds herself once again struggling in the margins.

“Yet how awful it is to admit that closeness to white people at the convent has ruined your heart, and caused your womb, from which you reproduced yourself before you gave birth to anything else, to shrink between your hip bone.”

Unusually, This Mournable Body is written entirely in second person, with Tambu addressed throughout as ‘you’. The usage echoes Tambu’s own dissociative state, as she struggles with her sense of failure and helplessness. Together with recurring metaphors for her mental illness (a hyena howling, ants crawling over her body) it creates an intimate portrait of mental struggle. At the same time, as in Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, Tambu’s breakdown and fragile recovery can be read as standing for a country suffering collective PTSD after a brutal war and struggle against occupation.

“Now you understand. You arrived on the back of a hyena. 6the treacherous creature dropped you from far above onto the desert floor … You are an ill-made person. You are being unmade. The hyena laugh-howls at your destruction.”

The title, This Mournable Body, is taken from the essay, 'Unmournable Bodies', by Nigerian author Teju Cole, which called into question whose bodies the West decides are worthy of mourning. Throughout the novel, Tambu’s fortunes ebb and flow, while in the background we catch glimpses of the issues that beset the Zimbabwe – residues of white supremacy; the physical and mental scars of those who fought the brutal war of liberation; sexual violence; corruption; suspicion of foreigners…

This is a powerful novel: an intimate story written on a large canvas. Now on the 2020 Booker Prize Longlist.

You’ll Enjoy This if you Loved: Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga, The Vegetarian by Han Kang, We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo, The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Avoid If You Dislike: Books written in the second person

Perfect Accompaniment: Mealie meal porridge

Genre: Literary Fiction

Buy This Book Here

Thursday, 6 August 2020

Firewatching by Russ Thomas

Reviewer: David C Dawson

What We Thought:

This is a great debut novel in what promises to be a series of mysteries involving a Sheffield-based detective called DS Adam Tyler.

The remains of a wealthy and unpopular businessman are found bricked up in the wall of the Old Vicarage in a quiet Yorkshire town. The man had disappeared six years previously in mysterious circumstances.

DS Adam Tyler is assigned to the case. He’s an ambitious gay detective with a dark secret, and a lot of conflict with the hierarchy in the police force. An attractive young man called Oscar picks him up in a gay bar. Oscar also happens to be the son of the dead businessman.

And then it all gets very complicated…

As well as a murderer to find, there’s an arsonist on the loose. And there are two suspicious aged spinsters who live together and have a connection with Oscar.

Then there’s the gay fire chief Paul Enfield…

Thomas’s debut novel is a conventional detective mystery with a gay hero, or maybe anti-hero at its core. Thomas throws in every possible red herring he can think of, plus an interesting cast of flawed characters, none of whom are entirely trustworthy.

The story is mainly recounted from DS Tyler’s perspective. But Thomas uses multiple points of view to give us some great twists, together with reader prior knowledge, which will keep you on the edge of your seat.

The climax is gripping, and Thomas ties together every loose end in a very satisfying way.

You’ll enjoy this if you like: Barbara Vine, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid

Avoid if you don’t like: Some graphic description of cruelty

Ideal accompaniment: A flaming Sambuca

Genre: Crime Fiction, Police procedural, LGBTQ

Buy This Book Here