A Smart Female Detective Puts Pune on the Mystery-Thriller Map

Who doesn’t like a good yarn, a good murder mystery? The joy of reading a well-written thriller that keeps you filled with suspense, taking you on detours, filling you in with all kinds of interesting trivia of a place and people, and bringing them all together in a neat, smart denouement is one of the pleasures of life. Especially these days, when nothing in society finds resolution, where the crooked and the greedy thrive, where justice is both delayed and denied, and the guilty are not punished, a well-written mystery-thriller can be the medicine that we all need to cure the blues and bring neat closures. And, so it is that I found friend Mayur Didolkar’s thriller/murder mystery – “The Dark Road” – published by Juggernaut Books – offering me a rambunctious ride through what one might consider a staid and prim Pune. However, we find a city in which there are all kinds of deviant, intelligent, hot and haughty inhabitants involved in all kinds of hanky-panky but who get their just desserts. Pune has arrived with nary a mention of Shivaji, but as home to a smart woman detective.

Growing up in India in the 1960s and 1970s many of us were fed on a diet of Enid Blyton books during middle school, and Agatha Christie, Earl Stanley Gardner, and others in high school, especially during summer breaks. I remember reading James Hadley Chase, once finishing reading three books of his in one day. We consumed whatever was available in “circulation libraries”, for twenty-five paise a book, loaned for five days: the good, the bad, and the very bad. Not many of us were sophisticated enough to distinguish between the various genres of thrillers, whodunits, mysteries, detective fiction, and so on, but we did get an education of sorts on the British countryside, scones and sandwiches, and American mayhem. Agatha Christie was a favorite, and Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple on top of the list of memorable characters in those halcyon days of alien fiction.

Those were also the days of few movies, and no television, for television came to most of India only in the mid 1970s. Yes, those yester years might be considered quaint and downright boring for readers of Indian fiction in English today, and for movie goers and television watchers fed on a vast diet of mindless and noisy surfeit. Fast forward four plus decades, and we now have a new crop of talented Indian writers entering what is still a nascent field of the murder/thriller/suspense genre, providing us the succor in these troubled times, and fulfilling the desire we have for “neat endings”.

First things first: welcome, Prasanna Killedar, to the pantheon of female Indian heroes. Retired Assistant Commissioner of Police, Prasanna Killedar, now a private eye, gets a call from one of her police colleagues. There is a murder of a young woman, Sanjyot Pathak, away from town, in the hills, where she was camping alone. She is a runner. The police are in a hurry to find the killer because Siddharth Pandit, the mover and shaker in town, and a friend and mentor of Sanjyot, wants the police to track down the killer, dead or alive.

Story-telling is an art, and while some try hard and achieve some success, and some try hard and provide little fizz, there are some, it seems, who have a natural talent to spin yarns: they seem to have an ease, a way, and a method to take the reader on a roller-coaster ride, and bring them safely to a smart, crisp stop at the designated place – with a sigh of relief, a big, bright smile of satisfaction, and a glow born of wonder at the sheer magic of the journey. “The Dark Road” provides such a ride. And one hopes that Prasanna Killedar will reappear in new work by Didolkar, and that she will catch the imagination of Indian readers, and readers on alien shores, who will become as familiar with Pune as some of us became familiar with London and the British countryside, and New York City and the bad lands of Las Vegas.

Mayur is a natural-born story teller, but his writing skills have also been honed as a result of his own voracious reading of mystery novels, and the keen watching of Hollywood thrillers. Familiar with his political and social commentary on a variety of news platforms, I chuckle each time I find him quoting something from a Stephen King novel or a Hollywood thriller with the ease of someone who knows his stuff backwards and forwards, and inside and out. I think back to our own old days when a friend or a colleague would quote Sherlock Holmes from the Arthur Conan Doyle oeuvre or lines from James Bond movies.

There are consequences to our habits of reading and watching, however, and an astute reader will get a sense that “The Dark Road” travels through some “foreign” lands -- in the choice of metaphors and allusions, examples of drink and dress, and the mores and habits of the rich set of characters inhabiting this thriller. Thus, Prasanna’s habit of drinking Scotch with soda; her daughter quickly preparing an egg sandwich for breakfast; or hanging out with her “besties” -- Sumitra Rane, Sharmil Jagtap and Lata Ratnam – in their late forties and early fifties, and who are into ogling young men, smoking cigarettes, and getting drunk. Also, one too many allusions to Hannibal Lecter. While at times they seem out of place in what, we suppose, is still a conservative, and a bit of the backwater city that Pune is, we are also in for a surprise peep into modern urban life in India. “The Dark Road” is Mayur’s first published work of fiction (he has self-published another novel, “Kumbhpur Rising”), and if Prasanna Killedar is to acquire a large fan-club following, and if some intrepid film or TV series producer is going to bring her to life on the big or the little screen, one hopes she will also be found spouting some choice Marathi “cuss words”, quickly draping a saree on her way to Kolhapur to find out the “killer devotee” at the Mahalakshmi Temple, or cooking up some tasty sabudana kichdi for her daughter Ira.

But we are getting ahead here… and if more readers are to be attracted to spend their thirty rupees to download this 540-page novel via the Juggernaut app, they have to have a little bit more bait to chew on. We know that Sanjyot Pathak is a runner, and she is being trained by Siddharth Pandit to run the marathon. So, we get a little layout of the Pune land -- a GPS version of the eighteen kilometers, for example, starting from Pune University, to Chandani Chowk and back, via Paud road, and where the roads go downhill, and what runners and bicyclists are supposed to watch out for. Mayur is at his best here as he is himself an avid runner and cyclist, and is able to provide the reader a step-by-step, pedal-by-pedal account of what it takes to practice well, perform better, watch out for the hazards, and take advantage of the contours of the land.

Then there are the interesting characters: Kunal Darekar, Sanjyot’s paramour; her dead or missing sister, Amruta; her controlling mother, and loser father; there are intrepid policemen and women who have their own problems of love, marriage, and family; and there is politics, political cunning, and the manipulation of the gullible. The narrative/structure of the novel itself is smart, engaging, and suspenseful, with Siddharth, Prasanna, and Sanjyot getting to relate their tale in first-person, with threads being carefully pulled together to create patterns that begin to take shape in unexpected ways, and smart dialogue that ranges from the risqué to the brisk, funny, and memorable.

“The Dark Road” is a bright, new addition on the Indian bookstore shelf; Prasanna Killedar is the best new female character in Indian fiction; and Mayur Didolkar has the potential to build a vast fan club if he has Killedar go on other intrepid hunts to find the bad guys and the wicked girls. We need neat closures in life, and smart stories to capture our imagination, and “The Dark Road” provides those this summer.


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