A strange series of murders have been taking place in the town of Meraupatnam. Ordinary people are getting killed by snipers. The mayor is at his wit’s end to catch the killer. Finally he calls on Juni Dagger, the famous investigator, to solve the crime. Arriving in town, the first thing Dagger does is to challenge a local card-player named Mr Crow to a game. The second thing he does is to save Mr Crow from being the next target of the sniper. How did he do it? By seeing the sniper out of the corner of his eye and “estimating his timing and lunging forward so that not only would Mr Crow be saved, but the sniper’s efforts would go to waste...”.
Dagger seems to be extraordinarily sharp at times and equally dense at others, a tall handsome man who gorges himself on shawarma, sandwiches, and pizza, yet shoots his gun unerringly to bring down hidden snipers in faraways alcoves. If he feels a tad juvenile and derivative, reminding you of detectives from Rex Stout to Sherlock Holmes, it could be because the author of Juni Dagger: Murders in Meraupatnam, Arjun Chandra Kathpalia, is 16 and this is his first book.
Kathpalia brings together a large variety of influences into his story, from the atmosphere of a thinly disguised Pondicherry to the technical names of drugs like methamphetamine. In his writing, too, the sentences range from Victorian English (“The victim, Mr Evans, had been a landed gentleman who lived alone”), to American teenage lingo (“Let’s have a pyjama party!”), to typically desi slang (“this man had brains!”).
One can imagine Kathpalia reading up a wide variety of detective fiction to prepare for the book, putting down ideas and scenes as they occur to him, and then stringing them together. As a bare bones plot (or shall we say, a pitch), the book sounds interesting. There is a hidden criminal scheme, there are quirky characters, there is the amusing interest in food and the corresponding unwillingness to pay for it.
Where Kathpalia’s inexperience shows is the filling in of details, the creation of the little incidents and twists of plot that come together into a larger arc of meaning. Those are the things that turn the make-believe world into something believable. Without them, the book remains the equivalent of an outline drawing in pencil, with none of the colour that would draw us in. It also keeps us from seeing any depth to the characters. Despite all these failings, one sees this book as a stepping stone to better efforts by the writer—assuming the editing and proofreading processes of the publisher are more rigorous next time.