I will confess to picking up Anuradha Kumar’s The Kidnapping of Mark Twain because of its title. It is the perfect hook. Crime fiction, set in colonial Bombay, offers up delicious possibilities of the segue of late-19th-century Indian history with the romance of the American writer and his real-life adventures. Largely delivering on its promise, the book is a story of crime, intrigue, and detection.

It opens with a murder. A young woman, Casi, has been found strangled to death at her lodgings in the “native” part of the city. The obvious suspect, her husband, is a labour supervisor at one of Bombay’s cotton mills – a site crucial to the city’s economy – and has an alibi as well as the political support of local leaders. Soon after the murder, Samuel Clemens, better known by his nom de plume, Mark Twain, arrives in Bombay with his wife and daughter, as part of his extensive tour of the British Empire. The very next day, the writer is found to have disappeared from his hotel room, sending the city and its officials into a state of complete disarray.

The American Consul in the city, Henry Baker, must prevent the crisis of the missing writer from triggering a diplomatic debacle that would further upset already fraught British relations with the United States. He is joined in his pursuit of the truth by Maya Barton, the daughter of a clergyman, rumoured to have a Kashmiri mother, thus acquiring a liminal, Anglo-Indian identity. The book shifts between genres, easily weaving social critique and political commentary into its story of crime and drama.

Bombay, as it was

Bombay is clearly the star of Kumar’s novel. At first glance, it has a Dickensian feel to it. Like the 19th-century London of Bleak House and Oliver Twist, Bombay is both a site of industrial progress and a “den of evil”. It is where danger lurks in dark spaces and class and race draw clear lines between its citizenry. Reminiscent of Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1951), Bombay is, in this setting, the aspirational city already, as much as it is the city of overcrowding and pestilence, poverty and addictions.

In this fictive account that draws heavily on Twain’s memoir/satiric commentary/travelogue, Following the Equator (1897), the Clemenses first land at Bori Bunder docks, and while the narrative shows us the chaos of the city, the noise, the colour, from the perspective of an outsider, it remains blessedly free of Exotic India tropes. There are no rope tricks, no esoteric magic, and the one contortionist yogi the visitors encounter is recognised for the obvious spectacle meant for the outsiders’ gaze that he is. Much of the city is revealed in Henry Baker’s negotiations with it. The Clemenses stay at Watson’s Hotel, a major landmark for the rich and the famous. They attend a lavish party at the home of one of the city’s rich Parsi businessmen. Henry lives at Byculla Club, Maya at a Colaba bungalow and they first meet at the Asiatic Society. The lives and lifestyles of turn-of-the-century Bombay are a special treat the narrative serves the reader.

The writer’s choice of protagonists is a political one. Henry has the privilege of race, of course, but is far removed from the precincts of power, despite holding an important administrative role. While he is a commoner from Chicago, Maya is an unconventional woman, choosing to live on her own terms, and is often the object of speculation and gossip. Together, they tackle a diverse range of problems. Maya’s personal involvement with Casi, the murdered woman, exposes the fault lines of gender in colonial India. Polygamy goes unpunished. The “Age of Consent” bill, seeking to raise the marriageable age of girls from ten years to twelve meets with resistance because it represents a corrosion of Indian values. The granting of divorce to a beleaguered wife is seen as evidence of women’s defiance of the sacred rites of marriage, in other words, a defiance of patriarchal control.

Changing times

Henry is keen on modernisation via trade, pushing for the acceptance of electric fans, encountering the classic red tape that continues to plague modern-day India. He is forced into the role of detective because a missing writer, even one with an international reputation, is not the over-burdened police force’s primary priority. His search for Twain pulls him into the middle of interrelated crises- workers’ unrest at the mills, the threat of strikes, the subtext of unionisation, and widespread opium addiction, that great gift of the colonial enterprise to India. British policies were responsible for the ongoing opium abuse in the country and a particularly condemnatory incident in the narrative points at the Foucauldian spaces of confinement and punishment that supposed de-addiction centres often turned into. The Bombay of Henry and Maya is “a city pulsing with secret danger”, a new, cosmopolitan space, “like Constantinople, Baghdad, or Vienna. Cities forever conspiring to make history.”

The book compresses all its action – murder, kidnapping, investigation, conspiracies – into one frenzied week. Add to that its large cast of characters, Indian, British, and American, and sometimes the plot becomes a little unwieldy, a little too frantic to keep track of. However, what more than makes up for it is the historicity of the narrative. One of the first news items it makes a reference to is the trial of Oscar Wilde and the scandalous furore it caused in England. Wilde’s imprisonment at Reading Gaol, the Venezuelan crisis during the Presidentship of Grover Cleveland, Marconi’s experiments with the wireless telegraph, the first protests for women’s right to vote, all create an authentic backdrop for the novel’s events. Alongside this plotting of actual incidents and people, it also reconstructs patterns of crime in the 19th-century urban space, new methodologies in criminal investigation, and attendant prejudices about entire demographics labelled “criminal tribes”. The social and political censure is obvious.

As is that sweet detour, the sub-plot endemic to most period detective fiction – from Wilkie Collins to Agatha Christie – the love story. Maya Barton and Henry Baker are young, almost lovers who challenge the norms of a city they are both learning to love. They are subversive (Maya much more so than Henry), and their outlier status makes them perfect citizens of the brave new world they want to create. I for one, will be looking forward to their return in the next of Anuradha Kumar’s Bombay Mysteries. And to more drama in the streets of Bombay, of course.

The Kidnapping of Mark Twain: A Bombay Mystery, Anuradha Kumar, Speaking Tiger Books.