Book Review: It Takes A Murder
Brooks Town is a sleepy hill station that hasn’t changed much since independence. Everybody knows one another, and secrets, it seems, are rare. But Charlotte Hyde has some rather big secrets that she manages to guard very well. Only one person – Soumen – knows all her deepest and darkest secrets, but he is a rather unreliable character, appearing and disappearing in Brooks Town at will.
The story starts with his appearance on the boulder at the place just where Brook Hill sloped to the village below. Seeing him there after a long time prompts Charlotte’s recollections of her life and the death of Gautam Dogra.
Gautam is a Kashmiri refugee, a member of the King’s royal guard, who was forced to flee when insurgents overran his town. He stays now in the King’s house in Brooks Town with his daughter Asha, locking himself up in his study writing angry letters to the editor and columns extolling the need for a band of Hindu youths to reclaim what’s rightfully theirs. He rebuffs Charlotte’s offers to help him with his writing, looking through her, ignoring her completely, almost as if she doesn’t exist. But when he is murdered, Charlotte opens her house to his daughter Asha, who is also a teacher in the school. Ever since she moves in, though, Charlotte’s already strained relationship with her daughter Maddy deteriorates further.
Then there’s Kerketta, Charlotte’s old retainer, and the rag woman who is often seen hobbling along the river. There’s Daya, the cycle puller who ferries Asha to and from the school; Farah, the woman who runs a parlour in Brooks Town; Agamoni and Subrat, teachers and star-crossed lovers; and a huge bunch of other characters who make appearances throughout the novel.
The novel, if you haven’t guessed so already, is not a whodunit murder mystery, but a literary crime fiction. The murder is incidental, used as a backdrop to narrate Charlotte’s story more than anything else. And this – Charlotte’s telling of her story – is its biggest failing.
The prose is beautiful and lyrical. Kumar brings Brooks Town alive, paints the many characters really well – though some of them do have inconsistencies and seem a bit forced and contrived. But somehow, the sleepiness of the town seeps into the writing.
Charlotte’s story goes round and round in circles, as she jumps from recollecting the past to talking about the present, going back to the past again, leaving the reader rather confused about the time lines. There are stories – like that of Agamoni and Subrat – that have been developed that don’t do much to take the plot forward. There are portions where, in trying to be mysterious, Kumar ends up just confusing the reader. Like the blouse sewn with golden thread that turns up in a number of different places, and there’s no explanation of how it could have reached so many different places at so many different points in time.
In trying to keep that element of mystery and playing a cloak and dagger game with the reader, Kumar sadly loses the plot. There seemed to be no compelling reason for Dogra’s murder, or maybe I fell asleep by the time Kumar got around to explaining it. But the biggest failing, at least for me, is when an author has to resort to explaining things to the reader, as Kumar does towards the end.
If you have read so far, you must have got the connection And from there, going on to explain those connections.
Overall, although the writing is beautiful, the meandering story, the jump in timelines, the unnecessary characters and the sleepiness of the prose, sorely disappoint.
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