Distant cousins, there’s a limited supply.And we’re down to the dozens, and this is why:
Kolkata Noir is just 99 CENTS for the next five days at Amazon US and Amazon UK.
And here’s a super kind review by Julie S Porter, recently posted on Amazon.
Tom Vater’s Kolkata Noir is a tribute to the city of Kolkata told in the style of a murder mystery noir novel. It’s a three part structure in which two detectives, Madhurima Mitra and Becker, solve mysteries in the West Bengal capital over the course of forty years. Each mystery shows how Kolkata changes over the course of four decades.
The first part “1999-Calcutta” is a murder mystery that could take place in an episode of an English cozy mystery. Richard Dunlop, an English expatriate, turns up missing and a Calcutta businessman, Abir Roychowdhury is reported murdered. Mitra and Becker interview potential suspects including Abir’s widow, Paulami and brother, Kishore, and chase various leads that take them right into the homes of Kalkota’s elite to get to the bottom of this case.
The resolution of the mystery is pretty obvious but the characterization and milieu stand out in this section. Mitra in particular is an admirable lead protagonist. She is a bright ambitious young woman wanting to get ahead in a male dominated field in a country still set in a patriarchal society. She also has a family legacy to live up to: She is the niece of Feluda, the Bengali detective star of the novels by director/author, Satiyajat Ray. His reputation is legendary and Mitra wants to make her mark for her own benefit as well as fill his very large shoes. (Feluda’s character is so prominent in Indian literature that it would be the equivalent of a young British detective trying to carry on the legacy of their Uncle Sherlock Holmes or Aunt Jane Marple.)
This section also reveals an India that even though it has been an independent nation since 1947, still holds onto the English class system and caste system from the Hindu religion. This part is an intended pastiche to the English drawing room mystery as a reminder of those days. Mitra and Becker visit the homes and interrogate Kalkota’s wealthiest citizens who live in a separate isolated world from the people below them. There are still barely concealed hostilities between the English and Indian populations but mostly it’s depicted with racist remarks and an entitled nature that claims dominance over others. The poorer areas are hidden away in the margins as though they live in a place far away and remote from the palatial mansions and marital troubles of the Roychowdhuries and the people around them.
The second part, “Kolkata-2019” takes place in those margins that were left behind by the elite of Part One. Becker is called back to India because an Englishman wants him to go to Kalkota to retrieve his wayward sons, Aubrey and Magnus Bilham-Rolls and bring them home. Aubrey and Magnus are not exactly receptive to the idea. The brothers have a sweet scam going on in which Aubrey assumes the role of Farangi Baba, a guru who claims to have a direct pipeline to Nirvana. Magnus handles the promotion and money while Aubrey wins over the crowd and reveals his version of the secrets of the universe, particularly where Mother Theresa hid her money. This particular story catches the attention of an impoverished public, several nationalistic groups, and violent people who would like to do away with the brothers and take the money for themselves.
Instead of the wealth experienced by the characters in Part One, Part Two shows the crippling poverty experienced in the poorer sections of Kalkota. The community is riddled with unemployment, homelessness, addiction, and various people who are without any sort of hope. It’s no wonder that Aubrey and Magnus can so easily sway a crowd that is desperate for a miracle and need something to relieve their hard troubled existence. We also get a sense of
people driven to violence and hatred directed at the various immigrants. They have been pushed around by the people on top and now they are pushing back violently if need be.
We also see how the years have changed Mitra and Becker. The two were briefly partnered but shared a mutual affection for each other. Now twenty years later both have found professional success, Becker as a detective settled in England but acting as a liasion to India and Mitra has successfully climbed the ranks and became known as well as her uncle. Their personal lives are also marked by their previous case. Becker never married (except to his job) because he never forgot his beautiful and strong willed partner. Mitra however is married with an adult daughter but still carries a torch for her once partner. Their resumed romance adds on to the crime caper aspects experienced by the Billham-Rills Brothers in Part Two.
“Part Three: Killkata-2039” is the most influenced by the noir genre. It has a plot similar to a 1940’s film but has a near futuristic science fiction setting surrounding it. Becker receives a call from Davi, Mitra’s daughter that her mother needs to leave Kolkata which is now largely underwater thanks to climate change caused flooding. Not only that but her father, Mitra’s husband is missing. As a Muslim, he has been the target of several hate crimes and may have been kidnapped by an Anti-Muslim religious sect.
The Killkata setting shown in Part Three is one that has fallen into ruin. The city is ruined by environmental catastrophe. Besides the flooding, decades of chemical poisoning and radiation from war have taken their toll on the people. Those that haven’t died from the poison have ended up with physical and psychological abnormalities such as a family of orphaned siblings that includes one sister with a large amount of testosterone that gives her a full beard and a hermaphrodite sibling. Racism has taken over as Anti-Muslim laws have prevented Muslims from finding employment and many ethnic groups are murdered in the streets. The wealthy have already abandoned the city leaving behind those who are too poor, too sick, or too protective of those that remain to leave.
While the setting is dystopian future, Mitra and Becker’s romance and their plot is old Hollywood at its finest. There are dark shadowy figures who could be informants or assassins. There is a world weariness and cynicism as the detectives journey through the mean streets looking for any leads or suspects. This cynicism is played into their romance as the duo are no longer the young idealists that they once were. They have been hardened by the dark times and their profession. Justice is a faint memory and they no longer see the world as us vs. them black vs. white morality. Instead it’s a gray world of mere survival.
However, the duo still retain their selflessness and dedication to others as they prove in an ending clearly reminiscent of Casablanca. One of the pair leaves Kolkata forever while the other remains and continues to fight for the new surrogate family that they have formed.
With its engaging couple and detailed setting, Kolkata Noir is a brilliant mystery that exposes India’s past, present, and future.