Crime fiction is a wonderfully efficient way of telling stories about human life!’ said Henning Mankell, the iconic Swedish author of the ‘Wallander’ police procedurals,as he told me that thrillers, just like the ancient dramas, are a mirror through which to view the world.
The hoary origins of thriller fiction can be traced back to proto-crime writer Sophocles, a Greek dramatist who in 430BC penned Oedipus the King—essentially a twisted murder mystery. Furthermore, thrillers set in foreign lands and distant times can be an introduction to places and how the local psyche operates: so going to Shanghai I pick up a Chinese thriller, in Australia some Aussie crimi. Some places like London are capitalising on thriller tourism by offering pricey tours in the footsteps of James ‘007’ Bond and Sherlock Holmes.
India with its rich landscapes and culture provides remarkable scope for thrills. Without ever setting foot here, Wilkie Collins threw in the theft of an Indian cult object in the world’s first crime novel The Moonstone (1868), not to mention three mysterious Brahmins posing as jugglers searching for it in foggy Yorkshire. The motif of purloined Indian jewels appears in two Agatha Christie plots (The Secret of Chimneys and The Rajah’s Emerald) and there’s an Indian murder weapon in The Big Four: toxic chicken curry. South Asia as a fictional crime scene presents challenges. Writers tend to overload manuscripts with cultural stereotypes and exotica pandering to a western audience. The way to sidestep the clichés is to give them fresh twists: instead of chicken in the tandoor, put a moose in it, or instead of masala chai add some Bollywood masala.
Subcontinental thrillers were initially stuck in the rutted tracks that western pulp had made and local detectives were often blurry photocopies of Sherlock. Frankly speaking, the Indian pulp trade has produced too many poorly thought-out quickies for the growing metropolitan paperback market, with barely existent plotting and sense of stylistics. Writing is a craft—and one must be a skilled craftsperson to pull it off. In the west one can choose from a plethora of writing workshops, which is good in a publishing economy that’s impatient to reap its rewards. Workshops teach wannabes how to think like a pro: detect weaknesses and improve the strong points. Recently, such workshops have come to India too.
It’s also crucial to have the right word processor. A writer needs analytical support from the software—which means breaking text down into scenes, keeping track of characters, things and locations. I’ve found that the best writing tool is a freeware developed by sci-fi novelist Simon Haynes, who is also a programmer. Haynes shares his yWriter, essentially a word processor with added muscle, on website Spacejock.com.
Good thrillers are cathartic, just like those ancient Greek dramas were. They set the score right by having the good guys do the good stuff at the climactic end of much bad stuff. Therefore, reading a thriller can be like medication for the mind, except that it has no harmful side effects.
I recall chatting with Lady Kishwar Desai, co-founder of the Delhi Crime Writers Festival and one of the genre pioneers in India, who put the whole matter rather succinctly, ‘Basically, as a society matures and becomes more law abiding, or at least more aware of the law, and begins to understand how the police system works, crime fiction and thrillers are written and consumed more and more locally. The old idea of revenge being the best form of justice no longer holds true, and we begin to move towards investigation, logic, proof, evidence. Besides that, we also are able to explore the idea of social evils in depth in crime fiction. Many crime novels are social commentaries on the world we live in.’
Author of 13 books including Hari, a Hero for Hire! He is a Bangalorean and bent on staying one. Download his updates from www.zacoyeah.com