Crime against children has to be the worst kind of crime there is, all the more horrific when it is the cruellest form of sexual abuse. Bestselling author Anita Nair lays this devastating world bare in her second crime novel, Chain of Custody.

Like her first book in the Inspector Gowda series, Cut Like Wound, this book is set in Bangalore, and we traverse not the cosmopolitan glitter of the city, but the seedy, depraved alleys of the other Bangalore, where all kinds of evil lurks behind modest, inconspicuous looking walls. Where boys and girls not yet in their teens lose their childhood to violence and prostitution. This is a novel very hard to read, but the way Nair tells it, it is also very hard to look away and stop reading.

Those who know better know that this kind of evil lives not just in the squalid quarters of any city, but amidst the gloss as well. It’s just better hidden behind polished facades, harder to pin down. So when wealthy lawyer Sanjay Rathore is brutally killed, and 12-year-old girl Nandita, Inspector Gowda’s maid’s daughter, goes missing, he sets off in search of the pieces of the puzzle. How are these the two incidents, from two completely different worlds, connected? How are they related to the rampant child trafficking into Bangalore from Mumbai, tribal parts of Odisha, Bengal, Bangladesh, and beyond?

Gowda returns

Nair’s choice of hero matches the tone of her crime novels – dark, gritty, magnetic. Inspector Gowda is a worthy protagonist – grey enough to feel real, and heroic enough to be intriguing and attractive. Nair has called him her alter ego in interviews.

Touching 50, Gowda’s grown calmer, gentler, fitter, trying to go easy on the drinks since his last outing in Cut Like Wound, where his intermittent growling and rough-around-the-edges mannerisms, mixed with a deep sense of honesty and integrity, were a little hard to digest by those around him. His sidekick, the earnest sub-inspector Santosh, returns too, back in form after a near-death experience in the previous book.

In Chain of Custody, as we trail Gowda deeper into the heart of darkness, overturning all the niceties of a bustling metropolis, we also inch closer to his personal highs and lows: his shaky but getting-somewhere long-distance marriage to Mamtha, a doctor posted in Hassan; his how-to-be-a-good-father dilemmas with his son Roshan; and his getting-more-complicated-by-the-second affair with ex-flame and child rights activist Urmila.

Between a breathlessly conflicting personal life and pressure from all quarters at work (read: working with an insufferable ACP and no sign of a promotion), Inspector Gowda’s few moments of calm are atop his treasured duk-duk sounding Bullet, and in the shower, washing off the incessant grime of crime. He is yet to learn to use a laptop properly, but that could take a while. And crime can’t wait.

Nair is real

Nair seems a natural writing noir, even though most of her work has been about women and relationships, art and life, people and their conflicts in rural and suburban milieu, even children’s books. She turned up the tempo to detective fiction only four years ago, after more than a dozen books, and thank goodness she did. This is some seriously good literary noir, a fine example of using the canvas of crime to make important and urgent social commentary, all done through wonderfully layered prose and strongly evolved characters. In her new book Nair adds a much-needed female face to Gowda’s team, in the sharp and dependable Ratna.

It feels good to read crime fiction so wholly Indian, the local flavour scattered across every page: in the lingo, the food imagery, the bylanes of Shivaji Nagar, Sampigehalli, and beyond, the complex workings of the Indian police force, the intricate roots of class and caste, the abysmal state of child rights and protection, and the efforts being done on the ground to salvage it. A fair amount of field work has gone into this book, and it shows in the way Nair uses real life accounts to infuse authenticity and impact into her plot.

There is never any need to suspend disbelief, often the case with many thrillers, for you know this is so real. Depressingly real. All of it, the subplots – scenes describing how some of the young girls were taken and thrown into brothels, never to catch a glimpse of the sky again, how a young woman is persuaded by her greedy boyfriend to perform certain services in the name of love, the pious elderly couple still very much in love but not quite as innocent and moral as they seem.

Krishna rules

The most arresting character in Chain of Custody is Krishna, mysterious and wicked, a product of his own lost childhood. His is the only first-person voice in the novel. In some ways, he is the equivalent of the riveting central character, the transgender Bhuvana from Cut Like Wound, challenging the reader to empathise while wreaking havoc in the world.

“I was six years old when my father sold me to a man for a thousand rupees…I worked through the day. I was given some food, and several beatings…I stopped wondering what I was getting beaten for. All I knew was that there was a furnace with a gaping mouth in my belly. It felt hollow and hot. I didn't know if it was hunger or fear. I forgot my name. Everyone called me Pathuria. Everyone else was also Pathuria.”

This boy grows up to be the right hand man of the all-powerful “Thekedar” – the one who runs the show, the one who named this young man Krishna. Krishna makes things happen for Thekedar and his clients. He gets his hands dirty. He lures little boys and girls from trains and stations and other public places into slavery and brothels. Thekedar’s hands are clean and he makes the big bucks, of course.

When Krishna takes a deep liking for 12-year-old Nandita, who is being beaten and prepped for a high-profile client, the narrative surges. Raids take place and the search for the thekedar, the real crimelord, begins. The drama unfolds over a tense two weeks, the chapters marked by dates and days, some action-packed ones written with an hour-by-hour timeline.

Nair neatly marries many of the tropes of pulp fiction with some serious social themes. In Chain of Custody, these social themes clearly overpower the various strands of mystery, making it all the more chilling.

Chain of Custody, Anita Nair, Harper Black.