The Masala Murder: A Review

I’ll be the first to admit, the name didn’t tempt me to read the book at all. The fact that the cover declared Madhumita Bhattacharya – a decidedly Indian name – to be its author added to my skepticism. Don’t get me wrong, I’m Indian and proud of it, but my experience with stories written by Indian authors writing in English hasn’t been too good. Barring the few odd exceptions, I haven’t read too many books, which were really enjoyable, by writers from the subcontinent. However, I put aside my doubts and started reading anyway.

I’m glad to say I was pleasantly surprised.

This book, like others of its kind (think Nancy Drew) follows the same basic plotline; amateur sleuth with an appetite for big juicy mysteries accidentally stumbles upon a case and it’s up to her to solve it.

Having said that, the story differs greatly from others of its kind. For instance, our protagonist doesn’t randomly have amazing sleuthing skills and knowledge of forensics; she has been to University in the United States of America, to study crime. That’s how she knows about tests and equipment. Admittedly, this is a feature quite uncommon in detective stories and I was happy to see one that was realistic in this sense.  It also has a corrupt police force, justifying how an amateur could solve mysteries better than the cops.

The story revolves around Reema Ray, a voluptuous young woman struggling to make both ends meet. She has a passion for poking her nose about in places where it doesn’t belong, and for eating. Food critic by day, not-so-successful detective by night, Reema’s life is rather dull. Add to that the pain of past relationships and financial issues and you have a pitiful character. She’s a little bit of a Mary Sue in my opinion, really.

She’s just been working as an expert on infidelity cases but has been unable to find a real mystery to solve. When paisa problems compel her to entirely quit sleuthing, not one, but two cases predictably propel themselves onto her doorstep.  She obviously eagerly accepts them and unveils the secret of a murder and kidnapping in Kolkata. Of course, Reema Ray saves the day.

The plot gets rather predictable in places. It has a very Agatha Christie feel to it, except it isn’t half as riveting as one of her typical whodunits. But then again, it’s unjust to draw comparisons between a newbie and the Queen of Crime.  It wasn’t very twisty but it was planned okay enough, as was the characterization. What the story really lacks is a sense of real danger and foreboding. You’d expect a murder-mystery to seem more threatening. Even though you want to read on, the book is not something you can’t put down. It doesn’t have you on an edge to see what happens next.

All that being said, Madhumita Bhattacharya really knows how to write. Her writing style has the power to paint pictures, especially when she’s describing culinary delights. I mean, I’m vegetarian and my mouth watered at the way she described even the meat dishes. Now that is really saying something.  What I really loved about her writing was the way she incorporated quirky phrases, which accurately describe in a sentence what would take paragraphs for most others.  My favourite such line was, “With time to kill before I made my next and final stop for the day, I meandered my way through the crowded Chowringhee pavement, dodging hawkers, gropers, walkers and gawkers.”

I can’t think of a more perfect way for someone to describe a public place in India, especially in a metropolis. The way the story has been penned down is so interesting that it’s a study in itself, especially for someone who’s looking to enhance their vocabulary and incorporate amusing ways to write.

To sum it up, The Masala Murder could do with a generous amount of masala, but the story still makes you finish it even though you’re left waiting to figure out when the book will reach its epic peak. It’s only the first Reema Ray book in the series, and hopefully, others to come will get even better than this. Even with the predictability and slightly clichéd characters, the book is unique. It leaves you feeling hopeful for the future of Indian murder mystery novels and reassures you that we Indians can slowly and steadily excel at storytelling of this sort too.

Take a good snack because you’re going to starve and salivate; snuggle up in bed and play detective as you get lost in the pages of The Masala Murder.

Don’t wait. It’s a go-getter.

Sanya Sharma

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