Nobody is without their prejudices before picking up an Anuja Chauhan book. Yet somehow, she manages to come out on the winning side as the book is finished. Call it the miracle of low expectations, if you will. The Fast and the Dead starts as an almost silly parody of self-important murder mysteries that pop up every book launch season. The book is aware of what it is not, and what it might be mistaken for. Chauhan makes no pretence writing a gritty story or a high-concept twist-hungry novel. And this is what gives the book its winning points.
Set in a little cul-de-sac called Habba Galli in Old Bangalore, an ideal little corner of the world with families from various religions and cultural ethnicities (seemingly) coexisting peacefully, almost as if they are about to break into a Rajshri productions song about loving one another. But not really. Beneath the very obviously idyllic setting simmers a natural tension between them all.
There is an old Christian lady who is slowly losing her mind but not her fondness for guns, a Muslim widow with a jewellery store, at loggerheads with the rich Marwari who also owns a jewellery store, an ethnically dubious carpet-seller who may or may not be from Kashmir, a mother and daughter whose once lavish lifestyle has left them high and dry, and a stoner trust fund kid renting out his huge house as an Airbnb, which is where our lead, ACP Bhavani Singh, finds himself.
Much of the premise thrives on stereotypes. Of course the Marwari patriarch is crude. Of course the single mother is an alcoholic and sneaks out to smoke. Of course the Muslim woman spends all her time cooking elaborate meals wearing an Anarkali suit. The book however uses these stereotypes as a jumping point for the plot, almost as if it is raising an eyebrow at the characters along with the readers, side-eyeing us with a dig at the author. When the old Christian’s gun is fired one evening, one of the bullets hits the Marwari patriarch, and Bhavani Singh is given the task of finding out what really happened. Infiltrating this seemingly quiet residential cluster, he ends up unearthing a lot more than is relevant to the case. Which is also where the book starts to lose the plot.
At its core, The Fast and the Dead is not a bad murder mystery. It is funny enough to keep floating just above the dead weight of unimaginative language and one-dimensional characters. But when Chauhan branches off into other quests within the book, reading interest flags. The stakes are quite low, so much so that the grand reveal feels laughably silly. We cannot care for the characters because the book doesn’t seem like it cares for them either. Some of them are given a lot of time and space, their thoughts explored in vivid detail, their personality description spanning several pages, only for them to not matter at all by the end of it. After a point, they all start sounding the same. There are one, two, three (or maybe more) romantic arcs developing, none of which feel grounded and end up taking away the spotlight rather than spicing things up. At one point I was almost skipping ahead of these portions.
What Chauhan also can’t seem to decide is when to jump abruptly to the next reveal, or when to spend a whole chapter explaining what just happened. This is true not only for the central mystery but also for every satellite plot point. When a childhood yearning begins turning into an adult romance, things escalate very suddenly and after a point you lose track of which of the two characters is supposed to be the reserved or awkward one, because they’re both flirting like their lives (or the progression of the plot) depends on it. Similarly, when the final twist is revealed, it is such an enormous jump from reason that you feel let down for caring at all.
A clean landing
A lot of Chauhan’s writing seems to be targeted at including as many buzzwords and easy laughs as possible. It is like the literary equivalent of sitcom laugh tracks after every dialogue. There are things which no sane person would say or do, but which are included in the book because they might add to the humour. Now this would have made sense had this been one of those books where there were no sane characters in the first place, but The Fast and the Dead is not one of those books.
Despite all this, there is something about its self-awareness which makes the book likeable. In some ways it is a classic whodunit – there is a locked room murder, there is an obvious perpetrator, there are a number of suspects, all of whom are interconnected through their pasts and present, and there is also an established, albeit slightly ridiculous red herring. The book manages to be more than the sum of its parts. The murder is solved, the many plot points mostly resolved, and you, dear reader, can live to be surprised by one more Anuja Chauhan book.
The Fast and the Dead, Anuja Chauhan, HarperCollins India.