Neither terrible traffic nor endless construction seems to dampen a true Bangalorean’s enthusiasm for their home. While Bangalore Twitter is always at hand for reasons to love even Bellandur, The Bangalore Detectives Club is determined to make proper area boys of us all. Nostalgia and an abiding fondness for the city’s many delights and vexations drip from every page of this cosy mystery. Result? Even a much too predictable plot is elevated to a tale that is easy to sink into on a particularly balmy Bangalore evening.

A love letter to Bangalore

Nagendra’s expertise as an ecologist is evident in her first foray into fiction. Descriptions of Bangalore’s once fecund flora abound. One is tempted to seek out the pockets of present day Bangalore where wide boulevards, meditative twilights, and languorously paced conversations still exist. Nagendra’s love for the city is obvious. A madness for gardening is often an excuse for some busybody behaviour.

Classic conversational exchanges about one’s last cup of filter coffee – strong, duh – slip easily into revelations that move the plot forward. It all feels pleasingly familiar – one can almost hear the comforting echo of an unspoken “Oota Aitha?” every time two characters meet.

Our protagonist Kaveri is easy to love. She is a product of her time and circumstance – limited by conservative social mores and sheltered from the realities of a more urbane existence. Happily for us, she chafes at these constraints straight out of the gate. While life hands her several advantages – a father who educated her till college and a husband with a promising career – it is Kaveri’s instinctive questioning of authority that drives the mystery.

In a way that feels freeing rather than out of place, she is a modern, inquisitive voice brought to a historical context. And what point is there to historical fiction as a genre if it won’t make room for a woman with some gumption to flourish? Team Kaveri will always place first in no small measure because of how endearingly this character has been etched.

Promising start to a trilogy

As the mystery deepens, so does the intimacy between Kaveri and her husband Ramu. An arranged marriage match, the slow discovery of each other’s personalities is a warm blanket even as the city around them turns chillingly menacing. Nagendra keeps the romance in soft focus, but the tenderness of these two huge nerds falling in love can’t be ignored. It’s old fashioned enough to have the romantics sighing, but doesn’t distract. Special mention to Ramu for being the quintessential Bangalore boy fanfiction writers will very much enjoy swooning over – honourable, sweet, quietly contemplative, and a staunch wifeguy through and through.

And it’s a good thing too. Kaveri and Ramu find themselves embroiled in a mystery that extends beyond their luxurious garden gate into an underbelly they have been too cocooned to fully confront before. Their collective expertise and wits are necessary to taking this adventure on. But while the murders unfolding are just the right amount of gruesome, the mystery of it all is rather straightforward.

The killer is very guessable and while their final unmasking is delicious high drama, this is not the novel for those seeking a nail-biter. The writing seems to reflect this gap too. It turns almost stark in comparison to the vivid picture Nagendra paints when talking about the city. The tension she’s able to hold taut during emotionally charged conversations disappears. There is a sense of foreboding that is hinted at but never fully realised. The most compelling aspect of each event is instead how the characters’ genteel sensibilities are challenged at every turn. Even a century on, our social discomforts remain much the same as in 1920s Bangalore.

The Bangalore Detectives Club is the first of a trilogy. Nagendra honours her writing chops with a tale that is charming and a respectable, if sentimental, addition to writing about and around the city. Having created a star in Kaveri, one hopes that the whodunnits in the next two novels will grow in complexity and maturity alongside the people they tangle with. A suitably vexing mystery to match these crackling characters is all that is needed to make one forget Tommy and Tuppence and fangirl the Gumshoes of Gandhinagar instead.

The Bangalore Detectives Club

The Bangalore Detectives Club, Harini Nagendra, Hachette.