Period piece pleasures

Topics books | BOOK REVIEW

Trapped for months at home with nothing to do all day/ By a virus that refuses to go away/I sought refuge in stories about techs and spies/Set back in time, with history in a new guise.  

I begin this account of my lockdown reading of period piece thrillers with Madhulika Liddle whose three novels, The Eighth Guest are set in Shahjahan’s Delhi and have a local nobleman, Muzaffar Jung, as the detective protagonist. Apart from the absorbing tale what is most entertaining is the depiction of life, particularly aristocratic life, in Mughal India, captured in the careful description of clothes, meals and even relationships. For someone who lives in Delhi and is familiar with Shahjehanabad, her novels are quite a treat.

Fast forward to early 20th century India. There are several novelists who have set their detective stories in this period when the freedom movement was taking roots in India. The most impressive is Abir Mukherjee, born and brought up in Scotland, whose first three novels, Death in the East, is set in Upper Assam where Sam Wyndham goes to an ashram to be cured of his addiction. Mr Mukherjee has worked in elements from the freedom struggle and the princely states into his narrative. 

Sujata Massey’s two detective novels, India Gray. 

Ms Massey’s book about the murder on Malabar Hill includes interesting elements of Indian-British relationships in colonial India and an explanation of how Ms Mistry becomes a detective because she is roped in to question a bunch of purdah-clad women, A truly extraordinary tale is told in her book The City of Palaces, which is not a detective novel but a story of a young orphan from rural Bengal who moves through extraordinary experiences to rise to a very different life in Kolkata. Ms Massey has also written a series of detective novels set in modern Japan.

Yet another period piece detective novel writer is Arjun Raj Gaind whose two novels, Death at the Durbar  are set around 1910 and where the detective protagonist is Maharaja Sikander Singh, ruler of a fictional princely state. Mr Gaind’s novels capture some of the tension between the princely rulers and the British but are rather simple in their story line.

So far I have listed period piece detective novels written by Indians and set in India. But there is one author of Indian origin, Radha Vatsal, who has set her detective novels in early 20th century New York. Her two novels, Murder between the Lines, have as their lead a young girl, Kitty Weekes. The novels are quite captivating in the way in which they present the ambience of upper class New York and how a young girl gets caught in situations that force her to become a detective.

Robert Harris is rather different. In his novels the link with history is not just to establish a period ambience for the story. Historical events and personalities are an integral part of his narrative as in Nucleus and Corpus, which are of the same genre though he is better known for his detective novels set in Elizabethan England with John Shakespeare, William Shakespeare’s elder brother, as the protagonist. 

Besides these period piece novels, several other thriller writers whose novels are set in contemporary times kept me entertained. The great Stieg Larson and David Lagercrantz who has followed up with further tales about the strange protagonist Lisbeth Salander, Stella Rimington, who used to head MI5, the UK’s internal security unit, and the truly extraordinary Japanese writer Keigo Higashino whose detective novels are crisp, truly suspenseful and with well delineated characters. 

Thrillers set back in time enthrall and entertain/And make no demands on your conscience or brain/Because we all have a surplus of time to lose/Relax, read them and get rid of your lockdown blues.

and reading by our writers and reviewers

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