So many of us have grown up on a diet of classic mysteries – be it from the masters like Agatha Christie, Edgar Wallace and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, or from less celebrated writers. There is something endearing about these stories that make us go back and re-read them many decades after they were written. Their settings, the puzzles they pose and the inimitable denouements at the end are nothing short of magical! An old mansion, a lonely valley, swirling mist and a spooky legend combine to evoke memories of one such popular milieu.
For long, one has wanted to read such mysteries set in India and with Indian characters … whodunits with no profanity or sleaze that everyone in the family can enjoy. Unfortunately, they are few and far between.
A Will To Kill represents an attempt to create one such classic Indian mystery. It is a homage to the old masters. What milieu did I create for this mystery? What else? An old mansion with an eerie past, set in a remote valley full of swirling mist!
As the story is set in the present day, one cannot get away from mobile phones and WhatsApp, even in remote hills. So, here is a present-day novel modeled on the mysteries of yesteryear. This is my first domestic whodunit after writing four corporate thrillers.
It’s a rum thing, being a writer. You never know why strangers smile at you. Especially immediately after they discover that you write fiction.
‘See!’ Your vanity digs an elbow into your ribs. ‘He’s smiling! He appreciates you.’
‘Nah!’ rumbles the realist in you, peering over its half-moon reading glasses. ‘He’s just indulging you. See how patronizing his smile is.’
‘Wrong,’ moans the cynic in you, rolling over as it slumbers in a corner. ‘That’s not a smile … it’s a sneer! Can’t you see the scorn in it, for heaven’s sake? He’s laughing at you!’
What with the world and his uncle starting to write, and with no dearth of “publishers” willing to print your stuff, all hues of writing – the good, the bad and the ugly – have flooded bookstores in copious quantities. There are no quality filters. And so, there are writers and writers and writers. No wonder some folks scoff at you.
The result? You never know how people will react when they learn that you too write fiction. Will you be appreciated, patronized or ridiculed?
It has become an occupational hazard of sorts. Unless you are a best-selling name, of course. In which case, they know that you write poorly or write well. For the rest of us, the mystery comes alive each time you meet a stranger and your brother-in-law proudly introduces you as a writer.
‘You write?’ titters a new acquaintance at a wedding for want of anything better to say. ‘Mythology or romance?’ The two genres seem to account for her entire world of books.
‘Neither,’ I say sheepishly. ‘I write crime fiction.’
‘Oh!’ She loses interest and starts looking around with an expression that suggests that she doesn’t want to hang around someone who is involved with crime.
‘Crime!’ says her husband, stepping forward. ‘My nephew writes that too. He’s good at English, you know. He got almost 75% in English in his Class X exam last year. He’s written a story about gangsters and vamps. Gory but titillating stuff!’
I make the right noises. I know where this is heading.
‘Can you edit his story and help him get it published?’ the man goes on. ‘But no stealing his story, okay?’ He punches me playfully in the shoulder. ‘Ha, ha! No offense – that’s just a joke.’
His wife has drifted away. I try to do likewise, but I am pinned between a wall and the man’s ample tummy. I try to tell him that I am a writer, not an editor. That I don’t steal stories. That I don’t write titillating stuff. But he is insistent. A shrewd look comes into his eye as he tries to strike a deal.
‘We can come to an arrangement,’ he whispers. ‘My nephew will share the spoils with you. What say you, eh?’
I somehow wriggle my way out of it. I mumble that gangsters and vamps are not my line. Nor is gore or titillation. I write cleaner stuff, I say with a touch of righteousness – white-collar crime.
‘Financial fraud and that sort of thing?’ he asks.
I nod, eyeing the gap that is opening up between the man and the wall. I might just be able to escape through it.
‘I have an idea for a white-collar crime novel,’ he enthuses. ‘A brilliant idea! You must give me credit in your novel.’
I smile noncommittedly. My attention is on the widening gap. It’s almost large enough for me to slip through.
‘You know these emails you get from Nigeria?’ he asks conspiratorially. ‘The ones that offer to pay you ten million dollars? It’s a fraud! It’s just a ploy to steal your money –’
I bolt through the gap. Escape at last!
I walk around the wedding hall to get away from him, and eventually find a lone chair for a bit of peace and quiet. But that’s not to be. A stranger pulls up a chair and plonks down beside me.
‘I wanted to talk to you about a brilliant idea for a novel,’ he says. ‘You know these emails you get from Nigeria …’
Clearly, being a writer is no unmixed blessing.
For those who take up fiction-writing after toiling for decades in the corporate sector, the peril takes yet another form. Some former colleagues – senior blokes who run companies and stuff – start looking down upon you.
‘Et tu, Brute?’ their silent glances seem to ask as they gaze down their Roman hawk-noses. The look they favour you with isn’t unlike what Caesar might have given Brutus in his final hour. I sense what’s going through their minds.
‘What’s wrong with him?’ they are thinking. ‘Why did he have to go and start writing – fiction of all things? He should have done a start-up or something.’
Having said this, I must admit that it’s not all peril. There is an occasional perk too; especially since I have begun writing about white-collar crime in corporate India.
My ‘corporate thrillers’ (as they are now known) lend me a measure of respectability in corporate circles. And they provide a neutral topic to break the ice with – ‘they are so prescient!’ some say. Even in boardrooms, folks make the time to utter a word or two of appreciation. That’s so welcome after having to flee from lectures on emails from Nigeria!
You also get an occasional call or a message from a CEO or an MD, who has become your friend. The latest one was after the recent sting on media houses by Cobrapost. My latest novel, Conspirator, is about paid media and fake news. It tells the story of how a media house monetizes its influence over readers and viewers.
‘Scary!’ says the friend’s text message. ‘This is exactly like in Conspirator – headlines are indeed for hire! What if the rest of your novel is true too?’
Well, I guess there are some perks too! But I must learn to take the perils with the perks. And to take it on the chin from time to time.
Speaking for myself, I seldom say that I write, and I discourage my relatives from introducing me as a writer. If people discover it by themselves and want to talk, I’m happy to reciprocate.
Otherwise, why open the Pandora’s Box?
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.
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.
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? 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.