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When headlines are for hire, greed is inevitable

Continuing with the theme of setting each book in a different sector, the Fraudster Series moves to the media industry in the fourth book. Conspirator begins with a hedonistic party thrown by a media mogul in Coorg. Mingling and conniving away from prying eyes and ears, is an intriguing cross-section of powerful men and women – politicians, businessmen, celebrities, and even a blackmailer and a purveyor of fake news.

Things go awry when murder strikes, and very soon, Inspector Dhruvi Kishore finds herself in the bewildering world of fake news, paid new and tailored new. Conspirator cover 1

Be it the west or India, the last year or two have been roiled by fake and disingenuous news. Fake news and dubious social media posts are said to have played a major role in the 2016 US presidential elections. Russia is said to have been involved in it too (Russia has denied the allegation). National boundaries are, of course, meaningless in our digital world.

Closer home, I recently came across a WhatsApp message that seemed to have a particularly malicious intent. The message purported to be a “letter” from a senior director of a global manufacturer of breakfast cereals and snacks to a customer. This purported letter “acknowledged” that the company uses pork and beef gelatin in their products. The malicious message sought to tarnish a global brand in India by taking a leaf out of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857.

To my horror, I found educated and “enlightened” people forwarding and spreading the message. Even the learned, it appears, fall for such obvious ploys and become unwitting abettors of this insidious mendacity. This is especially so on WhatsApp, where messages can’t be traced back to the originator (unlike Facebook and Twitter).

Clearly, politics is not the only field where fake news rears its ugly head. The business world too is tailor-made for it – tons of money can be made from it. And there are haunts other than politics and business too.

Conspirator distinguishes between three shades of this malaise – fake news, paid news and tailored new. The last is perhaps the most debauched of the three. It happens when trusted journalists (in newspapers, TVs or websites) customise headlines and content to suit private interests – political, commercial or any other. The guardians of truth stoop to cheat and betray the trust they enjoy.

The ones who do this are sly, intelligent people who practice their deceit in a way that makes it difficult for the unsuspecting reader/viewer to realise that what she is reading/watching is tailored news. It sneaks in under her guard and corrupts her perception and beliefs.

Conspirator is the story of such people and their craft. The greatest intangible asset of the media is their ability to influence opinions and choices. The antagonists in the story make use of it to the hilt.

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A rhyme about FRAUDSTER from a reader

Composed by a reader and a well-wisher in verse form!

A banker, she dies, soon after she has deposed
A chairman, he dies, in him trust was reposed
A server, it’s hacked, in it untold secrets composed
Illicit finance and crime coalesce in a thriller proposed
Will all be unravelled as Inspector Ranade disposed?

A roller coaster ride, if ever there was one
A corporate thriller with twists that get undone
Criminals and crooks with scruples none
Keeps you riveted, as the culprits are on the run
Try solving this locked room mystery, it’s fun!

A Wounded Unicorn

As cash crunches strike e-tailers, valuations plummet and down-rounds loom large, the stark reality facing e-commerce unicorns become clear for all to see. Protestations that all is well, and attempts to talk up valuations become less credible by the day. As boardroom conflicts escalate and the day of reckoning fast approaches, a shake-out in the sector becomes imminent. The e-commerce sector becomes a pressure cooker.

Against this backdrop, take a hypothetical e-tailer unicorn that is facing a cash crunch. What if the e-tailer suddenly discovers bugs in its offices and finds that it is the target of corporate espionage? To make matters worse, an investor disappears and a massive data theft follows.

The all-important funding round stalls.

As the stakes escalate and risk surges inexorably, murder follows.

This is the fictional tale narrated in SABOTEUR, the latest corporate thriller set in Bangalore. As bots mimic humans in the Indian cyberspace, men risk millions in Hong Kong. A story of a wounded unicorn and its venture fund investors.

Corporate India is great for crime fiction

This blog was originally published as a guest post at Printasia.

A question I frequently get asked is whether I had any specific purpose behind writing Fraudster. Was I irked by the atmosphere in corporate India, one newspaper journalist asked. Did I want to expose their wrongdoings, another interviewer wanted to know.

The answer is an unequivocal ‘No’.

I’ve had lots of fun during my three decades in the corporate world, and some of my best experiences have been there. Not to mention some of the brightest minds and the finest human beings I met, and the many friends I made there. Far from being irked, I am thankful to the corporate world for showing me an avenue in which to try my creativity.

Why then did I choose to write a novel about some murky realities of the banking world?

The fact of the matter is that the corporate world is a fertile ground for stories – inspirational or fictional. It is a melting pot of many types of people; men and women driven by different sets of values, priorities and motivations. Each one has a different worldview, and the environment has far more than fifty shades of grey.

It has a fascinating interplay of every emotion one can think of, and every kind of conflict. Fiction, after all, is about emotive conflict. Consequently, the corporate world lends itself wonderfully to crime fiction.

The stakes are high too. A person who is worth a million dollars in his private life may be running a 500 million dollar business. A banker who may be worth even less, could be handling a loan portfolio worth billions. A peculiarity of banking is that ordinary men and women handle vast amount of other people’s wealth. Billions upon billions of dollars of it.

If a banker falls to temptation and siphons off a small part of the money he oversees, he can gain a lot more than he can hope to gain by any deception in his private life. The potential payoffs for crime, especially white-collar crime, is huge.

That, in turn, provides one of the essential ingredients for crime – motive.

That’s not all. The corporate world also provides a virtually unlimited supply of the other two key ingredients as well – opportunity and means. With all three main elements covered, it becomes an ideal milieu for crime fiction.

But merely setting a murder in a corporate office, or robbing an ATM, does not make it a corporate crime. The nature of the deception and the modus operandi of the crime must have business processes at its heart. It must find or construct credible loopholes in the way businesses are run, and must take advantage of them.

To do that, a writer must have spent sufficient time in the corporate world and observed its failings. There must be millions of people who have done that, but yet, we have very little corporate crime fiction in bookstores. Apart from John Grisham, there are very few authors who write good fiction of this variety. I wonder why?

Holmes or Poirot? A difficult choice.

Holmes or Poirot? I just can’t choose between the two. One goes by physical evidence and the other by behaviour and motivations. Both have idiosyncrasies that could initially be annoying, but they grow on you as you read more of them.

What is more interesting than the creations are the two authors themselves. Here is a contrast that may explain the different natures of their creations.

  • Agatha Christie, in her own words, had a very happy childhood in a well-off family. Conan Doyle’s childhood was very different. His happiest moments were when he wrote to his mother from his oppressive boarding school.
  • Christie was home-schooled and had a governess, whereas Doyle learnt his ropes outside in the world.
  • Doyle travelled extensively, including to the arctic and Africa. At least in the initial years, Christie was mostly in England and France
  • Doyle was a practicing doctor, while Christie was a pharmacist.

To me, this seems to explain why Holmes was an outdoors, vigorous, physical evidence detective, while Poirot was more of the indoors, armchair variety who relied mostly on soft aspects. The characters reflect their creators’ lives.

Their training seems to explain why Watson was a practicing doctor, while Hastings was an incorrigible romantic.

PoirotHolmes