Zac O’Yeah considers a sense of place as the fertile earth from which a good crime novel springs. For the reader to feel it, the author must know it.
Illustrations: Boris Séméniako
The classic detective character has always been an urban explorer and a bit of a misfit. Sherlock Holmes in the late 19th century, Philip Marlowe in the early 20th, Lisbeth Salander now, in the 21st: obsessive and neurotic, constantly probing what goes on in our cities after dark, the stuff that most of us remain blissfully clueless about. Is it real? Fiction or fact? Does it matter?
I go to New York and buy an Ed McBain paperback or Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy to feel I’m in town; in Stockholm I pick up a Sjöwall-Wahlöö novel or another instalment from the Millennium Trilogy for local colour. Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra does the needful in Mumbai. It doesn’t matter so much that McBain fictionalised the Big Apple as Isola, or that much of Chandra’s city can’t actually be found on maps. It is atmosphere us readers are after.
Every self-respecting metropolis ought to have a detective series set in it. In my native Sweden, the village of Fjällbacka—population 859—has been the setting of multiple serial killer hunts in novel after novel. Realistic? How many semi-professional serial killers would it take to decimate 859? It defies logic, but you read the books (and buy the DVDs) because Fjällbacka is depicted as quaint and yet appears to have a darker side.
Location matters. The popularity of “crime walks” grows around the world in the footsteps of the booming thriller industry—whether it be classic Sherlock Holmes tours in London (to 221B Baker Street, “the world’s most famous address”) or Philip Marlowe bus rides in Los Angeles. (Raymond Chandler, incidentally, loved showing visitors the settings for his plots.) When I recently joined the guided “Millennium Walk” (based on the thrillers by Stieg Larsson) in Stockholm, there were tourists from Europe, Asia and America in the group. Even the tiny Swedish tourist office in peaceful rural Fjällbacka arranges for visitors to have a peek at the fictional murder sites featured in Camilla Läckberg’s bestselling novels. In Mumbai you can go on guided visits to the locations mentioned in Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram or Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City.
Place, milieu and atmosphere are very important for a fictional sleuth. In the case of my own creation, the semi-heroic Hari Majestic, the hallowed ground is Bengaluru’s bustling Majestic area. Whenever a Swede comes to visit me in south India, they inevitably want to see the places that are mentioned in the detective novels.
I chose to set my book series there for good reasons. Until fairly recently, crime fiction used to be dominated by Anglo-American locations and concerns, but nowadays you have globally bestselling detective novels set in places like Botswana (admittedly written by a Scot) or Japan (often written by Japanese). So why not Bengaluru?
As readers, we need to be taken to new exotic locations. Take the Hollywood blockbuster Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol. It had a scene set in the city. The whole thing was actually canned in Vancouver, temporarily turned into Bengaluru by putting up signposts in Kannada. Canada or Kannada, what’s the difference, right?
However, I beg to differ.
The Hari Majestic of my novels was a week-old orphan when he was found under a seat in the third row at Majestic Talkies. That’s how he got his surname. Now demolished, the cinema has also lent its name to this whole area (which is actually Gandhinagar on city maps) where Hari has his haunts. Now in his late 20s, he is a reformed tout who has turned into something of an unofficial trouble-shooter, a local Mr Fix-It. People come to him with their problems—missing siblings, cheating spouses, suspected scams—and since he knows Bengaluru like his own nostrils, he makes the perfect private investigator.
I doubt I could have imagined this character without having spent time in Majestic or, indeed, Bengaluru, the city where I’ve lived for the last 15 years (since leaving Sweden). Majestic is a somewhat seedy district sprawled out like a tattered red carpet in front of the railway and bus stations, its streets crammed with Art Deco cinema halls (once it had the largest number of cinemas per square kilometre anywhere), shady “lady bars”, the rock-bottom hotels of backpackerland, dubious DVDs, cheap suitcases, Bofors jeans—basically everything one might need.
I first set foot in Majestic long before I planned on becoming a detective novelist. In those days I was merely a backpacker trying to figure out how to survive on less than a shoestring. Back in the early 1990s, it was possible to get a room for under 90 rupees a night, which suited my budget. As long as I stuck to idlis, vadas and dosas, I could hang out a month on practically nothing. (Many years later, reading the gangster memoir My Days in the Underworld: Rise of the Bangalore Mafia by newspaper proprietor and social activist Agni Sreedhar, I discovered that local gangsters frequented the very same Kamat Hotel in Majestic in those days, hatching war plans over plates of vada-sambar and tumblers of filter coffee.)
I still recall in vivid Technicolor and wide angle the morning when I first got off the train at the city station, walked across the footbridge above the roar of the bus stand where the BMTC fleet was revving in preparation to take on the potholed streets, and filled my lungs with the nippy but slightly greyish Deccan air.
I’d been travelling for some time through the harsher north of India. I’d had my encounters with touts in the usual tourist traps of Delhi, Varanasi, Agra, Rajasthan—whose methods later inspired the Mr Majestic character—but the sudden, unexpectedly “homely” vibe that is provided by easy-on-the-pocket food, affordable accommodation, jolly people and an abundance of cheap beer came as a pleasant break from the hardships of the road. There were no special tourist attractions here, so no sightseeing agendas. The few touts soon recognised my face and left me alone. I spent my days in bookshops such as Sapna and those nameless second-hand bookstalls that used to proliferate south of Kempegowda Circle. Luckily, the distance between these intellectual havens and the nearest pub was rarely more than 50 steps, so as day turned into night my brain would be further stimulated by chilled UB Lager.
Later, I realised I also liked it because Majestic is cosmopolitan enough to accommodate pretty much everybody. I discovered a thriving migrant food culture—back alleys with humble Kerala-style eateries (serving the best beef fry in town) or Bengali canteens with authentic mustard fish. In the streets, temples stood next to cinemas with their larger-than-life cut-outs of cine gods: separate mythological universes cheek by jowl.
Once I’d spent enough time walking around here, the street grid, curiously, started reminding me of my old home town some 8,000 kilometres away—the port city of Gothenburg—with the single exception that there’s no harbour here. Maybe it was because I was a little tipsy. Like in Gothenburg, there is always a seedy bar around the next corner, and instead of a harbour there’s a bus stand and a railway hub from where you can go pretty much anywhere in the country. Even the way the streets were laid out gave me unsettling flashbacks, making me feel that I was walking on very special ground. Home ground.
Only after getting married to an Indian girl and settling down in the city, did I learn that Majestic, which I was so backpacker-nostalgic about (the bars, the beers, the yeah!), was something of a terra incognita for the average upper-middle-class city dweller: a place where you simply didn’t go unless you were hunting for pirated films or other illicit fun. With everything downloadable now, who’d do that?
The fecundity of Majestic was, however, beckoning me, waiting for me to do something literary with it.
Rather than freezing at a writing desk in northern Europe, I was, by the early 2000s, spending my days watching butterflies flit romantically among the coconut palms outside my window. Bengaluru was a city with as large a population as all of Sweden’s, but no snow or polar bears. Around the year its flowers blossomed.
It was easy to fall in love here. The city appeared to follow a will of its own, like no other place I had known, growing uncontrollably like a frontier town in the Wild West. On a street corner with an old colonial-era hotel and bar, there’d be a glass-and-steel shopping mall with a top-floor food court coming up before I had time to drink up my beer. The kaleidoscopic nature of the city intrigued me: just when I thought I knew my whereabouts, everything changed.
The eternal construction sites, the suburbs at the city’s edges pushing its limits every passing year, might occasionally make one feel melancholic—an emotion well worth tapping into for a writer. But art produced in a city like this might, I thought, also defy ordinary imagination, the way that Bengaluru itself does, seeming to expand fast enough to swallow the entire world.
But after a good decade of living here, I still hadn’t seen a local detective novel. My favourites, The Bookworm and Blossom Book House in the Cantonment area, did stock Asian crime stuff—Japanese thrillers by Keigo Higashino and Natsuo Kirino, Bangkok 8 by John Burdett, a few translated Bengali detective story collections, The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction. There were some rather esoteric thrills as well: second-hand copies of out-of-print 1970s pulp classics such as the Jaz Zadu series written by Shyam Dave about a Mumbai-based James Bond-like character who “attracts beauties and bullets with equal ease”, as well as Khallaas: An A to Z Guide to the Underworld by the late doyen of Indian crime reporting, Jyotirmoy Dey. But nothing very typically Bangalorean. That was when I decided to pen my own Mr. Majestic! to add something to the bookstore shelves.
I wanted to avoid creating a stereotypical literary detective—the overweight, middle-aged, divorced cop (if male) or the nosy spinster aunty (if female), or indeed any of the other varieties of “classic” investigator characters.
I’d seen plenty of Kannada action movies and had become a fan of Real Star Upendra, the king of local cool and one-liners. I wondered what a literary equivalent of such films might read like. After all, Indian cinema follows a different logic from its Western counterparts—while Western cinema remains more uniform (a thriller is not a romantic comedy), a classic Indian film is invariably a masala mix of action, comedy, romance and musical. Shouldn’t that masala flavour a literary plot and its protagonists as well?
I therefore set out to write a romantic tragicomic thriller in Bengaluru.
But first I decided to do a little reality check. Bengali detective fiction featuring the brainy sleuths Byomkesh Bakshi (created by Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay) and Feluda (by Satyajit Ray), arguably the two most famous Indian literary detective heroes, seemed far too derivative of the Holmes persona for my taste. So one day, spotting a sign for a detective agency, I dropped in. I soon got the feeling that I wasn’t going to find either deerstalker topis or chain-smoking private eyes. There was a notice saying that job applicants must be well groomed, freshly shaved and with proper haircuts. I touched my own chin and realised that I should have visited a barber first.
It turned out that an Indian detective bureau is like any open-plan office; this could be an accountant’s chamber or even a low-end call centre, if it wasn’t for all the staff looking so ex-army. They also didn’t care much for PR, I found, when I asked for a public relations person. Ultimately I was ushered into the glass cubicle where the head of the bureau sat behind a desk covered in Sai Baba promotion materials.
Brimming with excitement, I asked my first question. “What do real detectives work with?” The boss replied, “That I can’t tell you, because it is secret.”
I tried again. “If I wanted to hire you, what could you do for me?” He stared out through the window, those all-detecting eyes losing themselves in the distance. “Supposing you wanted to buy that house over there and needed to know who owns it, we could find that out.”
I turned to look at the house, but there were no suspicious criminals lurking on its roof. Besides, if I wanted a house I might go to a real estate agent rather than a secret agent. “So is that what detectives do for a living?” He shook his head vigorously. “Not at all; I just said that supposing you wanted to know.”
“And how much would it cost me to hire you to do that?” He looked at me doubtfully. “That I can’t say. It’s secret.”
So I went online and found out everything I needed to know.
During the research process, another Swedish writer—Kjell Eriksson, whose books have been shortlisted for the Best Swedish Crime Novel of the Year Award so many times, I’ve lost count—popped into Bengaluru, also planning to write a thriller set here. Being generous by nature, I took him around Majestic to show him what a perfect setting I had scouted. But he didn’t find it Indian and exotic enough. As we sat in a dingy bar, Status, on 2nd Cross, the veteran writer gulped down some Knockout Super-Strong and leaned over the table. “Sometimes I find it hard to relate to all of this. I want to discover something that genuinely speaks to me: it is psychologically important even though the reader may not notice the work behind. Much of what I put in my books has a symbolic value to me. Now you shouldn’t think that I’m being pretentious, but I mean that things acquire a meaning when I write them down: a small detail can be of utmost importance.”
Such as a squirrel he saw jumping off the ledge of his hotel window, which went on to get a bit part in the novel. So did my good self, I discovered later, reading The Hand That Trembles (2007), in which I was featured as a nameless pushy foreigner at an expat dinner party. But cosmopolitan Majestic didn’t make the grade for the master thriller writer. Being an ex-gardener (before he became a full-time writer), Eriksson decided he’d much rather set his plot in the flowery environs of Lalbagh Botanical Gardens, where a foreign man is found labouring without a work permit and turns out to be a long-time missing, presumed dead Swedish politician on the run.
Eriksson is one of those writers who don’t plan a plot. He told me he never writes a synopsis, but lets the story develop along with its own twists and turns as he keys it into his laptop. Walking around in Bengaluru helped him imagine what kind of life the politician led here during his 16 years as a missing person.
So is it the writer who finds his setting or is it the setting that finds a suitable writer? Certainly, it begins to look more and more that it may have been Majestic that picked me, just as Lalbagh picked Eriksson, rather than the other way around. It’s a two-way communication between place and story.
Patrick Bryson and I sat in a bathtub filled with beer—at least, that’s the kind of luxury we dream we’re going to earn by our penmanship. We were actually in a bar in Connaught Place in his adopted hometown, New Delhi, and utilised the happy hours until well beyond the restaurant’s closing time by pre-ordering enough Kingfisher Strong to cover every inch of the table. What luxury. Indeed, he wouldn’t have to pay until much later that night, when he went home to a very, very seriously annoyed wife who found him rolled up into a ball outside the apartment door.
Bryson has an interesting day job as a consular fraud investigator; his debut novel, The Sad Demise of Manpreet Singh (2014), is set in that world. His protagonist, Dominic “Biscuit” McLeod, investigates spurious visa agents and is led by a trail of dead applicants to uncover high-level corruption. As a writer, Bryson considers himself a Delhi local, just as I’m a Bengaluru local. It feels good to have colleagues with a similar mindset, and to know that I’m not the only firang detective novelist around. As Bryson said: “That’s very important for writing a crime novel, as you have to deal with a lot of inside information—the stuff about a city and a population that isn’t really publicised elsewhere, and it’s hard to make it up unless you have witnessed it first-hand. Coming from outside allowed me to write it truthfully without being embarrassed, and it gave a certain sense of perspective.”
[Burp] “So that’sch your modusch operandi?”
Bryson rinsed his tonsils with beverage and continued. “What happens is that you end up having two cultures, without belonging to either. This is a great process for the protagonist in a crime novel—like my hero, “Biscuit” McLeod—because the investigator is the person who has to be in that world of crime, without being a criminal. There is that line from Chandler: ‘… down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid’.”
The lights at United Coffee House kept growing dimmer. Or maybe it was just me getting drunker. Bryson continued. “To paraphrase that, “Biscuit”—and this is something I share with him—had to walk down the mean streets of Delhi and Punjab without being from either place.”
Ex-cowboy and ex-war correspondent Tarquin Hall is another colleague who is resident in Delhi, and like Bryson (and myself) is married to an Indian lady. His Vish Puri series is making waves around the world and has been compared to Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, set in Botswana. The evening I met him in a run-down Delhi bar in Defence Colony market, he had spent the day hanging out with illegal bookmakers for a story. Somebody had threatened to beat him up, so he too badly needed a beer.
I ordered another round. Hall told me how he began his literary career by writing non-fiction books (such as the brilliant autobiography Salaam Brick Lane about a crazy year in his own life) but switched over to pulp crime at a point when non-fiction writing was paid ridiculously low rates in the West. The advance for a travelogue barely covered his expenses. At around the same time, he did a story for the UK newspaper The Sunday Times about
Indian private detectives and found their cases fascinating from a social point of view.
Later our conversation grew a little hazy, but I recall him remarking that his detective series is really a personal chance to discover India. Among other typically Indian things in his novels is the importance of family. Despite meeting me in a bar, Hall is himself a dutiful Punjabi son-in-law. For those who haven’t read a Vish Puri mystery yet, suffice it to say that the protagonist is not another hard-boiled detective, but rather something of a jolly social explorer, frequently handling cases that are family-related, such as prenuptial checks and absconding maids, often to comical effect. And, while Sherlock Holmes smoked opium, Puri is addicted to greasy pakoras.
How is it that when you start reading a story, focussing your eyes on those tiny black shapes of ink on a page in a book, you leave your location—a dentist’s waiting room, an airport lounge, your bedroom—and enter another space, imagined by a novelist, maybe years ago, maybe far away in another country? You’re in Delhi or Stockholm or London, and then you read a story set in Bengaluru, and there you are.
It’s magical. There’s no widescreen, no projector, no sound system. And still you see the place, hear its noises, smell its air on the pages of a good book. To me that’s the greatest miracle story-telling can offer us.
To perform this magic as a novelist is an intuitive and tricky process. You hope for the worst for your characters (that is, as much high-voltage drama in their lives as possible), and pray that you’ll get away with what you’ve written. Yet, the end product must be perfectly logical, as readers want to believe that what is obviously made up is, in fact, true. Just as some Indian writers are occasionally accused of catering to the Western market and sensibilities, here I am, more and more, trying to please Indian readers with outrageous adventures that combine action with humour and romance à la Bollywood, Kollywood and Sandalwood.
But why not? Writing books is somewhat similar to trying to stay alive in a city like Bengaluru. It is a chaotic activity; you must kill your darlings and rewrite upon the ruins of your earlier ideas. You need to stretch your limits, conquer new ground, attempt the impossible. When I walk around Bengaluru, I often feel I’m walking across the pages of a magical manuscript—a manuscript forever in progress, one that will always remain in flux. One that I add a few more pages to through my own writings.
Zac O’Yeah was a full-time travel writer until he released his first thriller in 2006, the cult hit Once Upon a Time in Scandinavistan (English translation published in 2010). His Mr Majestic series will continue in October 2015 with the release of Hari, A Hero for Hire.