The place to be was home. On the balcony with a book, fitting accompaniments within reach. For the challenging page, a cup of jeera rasam, argumentative with pepper and garlic, with curry leaf crisped in ghee to preserve the decencies of debate. For more mindless pleasures, coffee would do. Hot smooth and sentient, with luxurious nibbles of Lalli’s fruit cake…”
Finely constructed descriptions lurk in the pages as one gets down to the nail-biting finish in each chapter of Murder in Seven Acts. It is one thing to show a detective wielding grey cells and quite another to indulge in lilting prose. Kalpana Swaminathan in her latest manages both with aplomb. As the title suggests, there are seven crime stories with Lalli at the helm of affair.
Lalli is a retired police officer and “collects curiosities” that invariably lead her to uncover a criminal intent. Lalli first appeared on the scene in 1997 and since then, Swaminathan—a surgeon by profession—has produced seven more of the series. For the uninitiated, it may take a while for her narrative to take off. Readers may get restless and wonder where is all this leading to, but only until they have got a hold. In fact after the first two cases, it gets very comfortable and one waits with baited breath to see what the events hold in store. Each act is not just a simple whodunit, but ordinary events are more-than-meets-the eye. After Lalli solves a mystery, the curtains on each act come down with the delivery of a powerful social message.
The first case is about a face that keeps re-appearing and Lalli’s ability to connect it to a death that occurred long ago. It is in the second act, the ‘Quantum Question’ that the author’s brilliant mind truly comes to the fore. Here, Lalli looks past the seemingly innocuous meetings and puts to use, the Schrondinger’s Cat to unearth a tragic act of murder.
In ‘The Sixth Pandava’, Lalli unravels a sinister motive wrapped brilliantly as a book-burning event. In the ‘Pret-a-Porter’ act, once more her curious instincts do not allow the scrawling in a notebook and tiles on a scrabble board to be dismissed as merely so. The author holds the forte yet again with her in-depth knowledge of culture and fashion.
The gripping pace seems to loosen a little in the next two acts, but her brilliant thinking and style come full circle in the last one. Titled ‘Threnody’, it is also at its riveting best. It is quite possible for a beginner to associate Lalli with another memorable detective character. But Lalli’s cases are far more complex, and as readers can sense, her knowledge far deeper than just poisons and clever hunches. Speaking of which, there’s an interesting link for which the reader will have to wait until the last act. I can also bet it is going to be the hardest.