‘THE BUTLER DID IT’ by Siddhartha Sarma

Siddhartha Sarma

Next to erotica, crime thrillers must be the most difficult to write a half-decent story in. The advantage is, if you write a bad piece of erotica, people assume it sort of reflects on your, shall we say, personal life. No one has yet accused a crime thriller writer of being a bad murderer.

The principal difficulty in writing a crime thriller is to decide which part to concentrate on. As far as I have gathered, the plot, the characters and the technical details are all significant in crafting a whodunit. Some concentrate on one of these three, and the really good ones are known for this concentration. Of course, one needs to do it properly to be, if not in the same league, in the same frame as the masters.

Sherlock Holmes is a character created solely to be a superb analyst. Doyle’s stories, therefore, do not pause much to reflect on the characters, but rather on the elements of the case. As Holmes himself says, in The Sign of the Four, he regards a human as “a unit, a factor” and nothing more.

In contrast, Christie’s novels have a lot more human elements to them. The characters are explored to some extent and the crime is not solved so much by a brilliant little piece of deduction as by gradual probing, not unlike that of a surgeon.

PD James comes somewhere in between. You get introduced to all the suspects, and some amount of details go on about the characters’ motivations. There is more to the plot than just the crime.

Police procedurals, on the other hand, are a more appropriate reflection of how crime is solved in the real world. People like Michael Connelly bring their experience covering crime or being involved in the myriad branches of the
crimefighting world into their plot, and carry the reader along towards the denouement.

Of course, one can introduce elements of the fantastic or eerie into a crime thriller, but here one needs to tread even more carefully. People like Janwillem van de Wettering’s Grijpstra and de Gier conduct lengthy dialogues on the meaning of life and such, which are woven deftly into the plot.

In other words, it takes all sorts to write a good piece of detective fiction. I have not, I must clarify here, read much crime fiction from India, but I hope the samples available do justice to the genre. Like fantasy, as I pointed out in my
blog a while ago, crime fiction is such a small pool in India that only the best need to be published, and some heavy winnowing is in order so the pool does not get muddied.

(Siddhartha Sarma is the writer of The Grasshopper’s Run (published by Scholastic and Bloomsbury) which went on to win the 2009 Vodafone-Crossword Award. Westland has recently brought out Sarma’s East of the Sun: A Nearly-Stoned Walk Down the Road in a Different Land under its Tranquebar imprint.)