Book Review: In the Shadows of Death


‘Being an avid reader of crime fiction myself, I have always harbored an ambition to make my own humble contribution to this genre,’ said writer Sourabh Mukherjee in an interview. ‘The story, of course, had its germs in my own interests in human psychology and in the complexities of human relationships, especially in these times of changing social order.’

‘Also, it does not make me too happy to note that, whenever we speak of popular detectives in English fiction, we end up naming Sherlock Holmes, Hercules Poirot, Father Brown, or still later Alex Cross, and more recently, Cormoran Strike. With so much of quality fiction being written in India in the English language, where is that one pan-Indian character that is a brand by her or his own right and has instant recall? So, I asked myself, why not make a humble effort to create one in ACP Agni Mitra?’ he added.

There is a serious dearth of quality crime fiction in the Indian publishing industry. No doubt about that. Most books that come out are either embarrassingly filmy, or way off the mark.

So when someone comes up with anything that is even remotely close to being an interesting read in this genre, I pick it up—no questions asked.

Sourabh Mukherjee’s In the Shadows of Death is one such novel that I picked up recently (in spite of its dull cover) and it turned out to be an exceptionally realistic read (Now, what is it that they said about not judging a book by its cover?). I call it realistic for reasons which I shall state later.

As is often the case with crime fiction these days, this book, too, kicks off with a gruesome murder. Sheetal Mehra, an HR exective at Crescent Technologies, is found murdered in the toilet of a Kolkata hotel after an office party. ACP Agni, accompanied by his sidekick, Inspector Arya Sen, arrives at the crime scene and the duo launch into an instant investigation. With some logical probing and questioning of the staff and the victim’s friends, it doesn’t take long for ACP Agni to conclude that Sheetal had been an adulterous wife and had been cheating on her husband for a fairly long time. There is no scarcity of suspects here. From her lecherous boss to her dearest friend to the husband himself—anyone could have killed Sheetal.

Just when the investigation is starting to hit a cul-de-sac of questioning and alibi verification, ACP Agni is challenged by another murder of the same nature. Meenakshi Menon, a director at Altius Finance, is found murdered and ditched in a rain-washed gutter.

While all of this is happening, ACP Agni is going through a storm of his own. He is only just divorced his wife, the reason being her extramarital affairs—spurred on by Agni’s own ignorance and lack of involvement towards their love life.

But, at a time when Kolkata is being rocked by a series of murders, that is the least of ACP Agni’s worries.

No sooner does he look into the second murder; Agni is rocked with the news of another. And another. Not only is there a recurring pattern to all the killings, there is also a twisted motive.

With the hard-boiled battle between the mysterious killer and the diligent ACP soon turning personal, the latter will have to race against time or risk losing his city to the sinister plot laid down by the former.

Will ACP Agni take down his mysterious adversary? If so, then at what cost?

A little clichéd, maybe, but the plot sure is interesting. The key elements of the book are the characterization and the details with which the murders are described. The author uses only a few potent strokes of words to describe the characters but they hit home instantly and, rather touchingly. Agni makes for an intelligent ACP, the only cliché to him being his copious consumption of alcohol. The victims, their associates and their friends are fleshed out to the point of requirement and that works fine as far as storytelling is concerned—setting up a good pace throughout. Inspector Arya’s charchter though is very, very under-cooked and we could have done with a lot more depth to him. The great triumph of all the good detective novels, however, lies in the characterization of the antagonist—and the author has done right justice as far as that aspect of the book is concerned.

Now, coming to why I called the book realistic; it is because of the crime-solving methodology applied by the protagonist. Most of it is down to first-hand interviews of the people involved and proper questioning of the numerous suspects and witnesses. This is as realistic as it could have been, for this is how most crimes are solved. Of course, I did not say this is a good recipe to cook an ideal page-turner. Instead of keeping it all too realistic, the author should have let his creative juices flow a bit and in doing so, he could have taken the readers on a right ride through the mystically beautiful streets and architecture of Kolkata. Sometimes it is good to throw the protagonist on a wild goose chase instead of having him sit in a chair all the time to do the math.

The narrative is in third person and the constant shift between the past and present scenarios keeps the readers interested in piecing together the jigsaw puzzle that this is. And while the prose throughout the book is exceptionally engaging, the author could have done with some better dialogues. The characters sometimes seem to be talking like a robot and having them express a bit by tampering with their language or style could have added to the intensity of certain situations as well as to the light humor that is a recurrent feature of the book.

That aside, this is an excellent crime fiction story that keeps the readers guessing over the identity of the killer. And while his identity is kept secret right down to the wire, his motives are revealed or rather explored right at the beginning, which makes the character hauntingly brilliant. This mysterious killer, walking the rain-washed streets of Kolkata, promises to keep the readers hooked till the end, and so does the fluent and compelling narrative of the author. This is indeed a book that can be finished in one go.

Readers will enjoy reading this book because the story is engaging and involves a lot of plot twists that culminate with a surprising climax.

Also, it is worth mentioning that though the subject of the novel is gory, the writer wanted to convey a very important message to the people in the end. In fact, the last page of the story will force you to ponder over the seriousness of the issue here.

p.s.: There is a second installment lined up in the ACP Agni series which I hope will hit the stands soon!

Title: In the Shadows of Death
Sourabh Mukherjee
Srishti Publishers & Distributors
3.50 of 5.00
Reviewed for: 

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