In Abheek Barua's debut novel, the City of Joy transforms into the City of Death. This dark, twisted and gripping tale of crime follows a 40-something investigator, Sohini Sen, whose near-dead career is somewhat resurrected when she is called in by the chief minister to investigate the high-profile murder of a leading industrialist's daughter in the city of Kolkata.
"He moves forward, grabs her by the hair, steadies her head and raises the cleaver. The mewling rises to a crescendo but he is certain it cannot be heard outside with all the windows in the room tightly shut and the air conditioner humming. There are no mantras to be chanted now, no passion to be felt."
Sen is a victim of poor career choices, political vendetta and bouts of depression.
Though a steady diet of alcohol and prescription drugs have addled her brains, she pairs up with unlikely sidekick Arjun Sinha to take the reader on a thrilling journey through what feels like Kolkata in the 90s, hot on the chase of a killer with a rather macabre agenda.
From the wonderfully evocative descriptions of the state and political machinery of the times, old money families, the new media barons and the television anchors who "combine the hectoring style of a Bible belt preacher with a careful disregard for the politically correct," one gets flashes of real-life people and incidents that may have inspired the author to craft this tale.
For me, it was déjà vu as I lived and breathed that putrid air. And the riveting tale with finely crafted characters and their idiosyncrasies captured in page-turning detail, kept me awake as I read the entire novel overnight.
The crumbling government buildings, the tony neighbourhoods south of the city, the marshlands surrounding the eastern fringes of the city, the old colonial clubs and dilapidated coffee houses, Barua's Kolkata and his characters couldn't be more authentic. His descriptions of suburban life and the seamier underbelly of the city and its outskirts will draw you in effortlessly while the well-researched, taut narrative describing police and criminal investigation procedures will keep you engaged right till the very end.
A compelling and chilling debut novel. One can only hope that there will be more books to follow!
City of Death