Monday, November 17, 2008

Murder, He Wrote

This appeared in yesterday's The Sunday Express.


Move over, Frederick Forsyth. With The Bikini Murders, Farrukh Dhondy abandons his genteel Poona Company and Bombay Duck persona to produce a novel dealing with a half-Vietnamese, half-Indian serial killer, one who preys on tourists in South-east Asia, spends time in Tihar Jail before masterminding an escape, is apprehended in Goa and who, after serving his sentence, moves to France.

No cigar, then, for guessing that this is yet another recreation of the life of Charles Sobhraj – called Johnson Thhat in the novel. Dhondy begins with Thhat being apprehended in Kathmandu, largely due to the efforts of a retired inspector; the novel then moves into a racy first-person “confession”. Much of the narrative is based on the available facts of Sobhraj’s life, but there’s a new character or two, such as Ravina, Thhat’s accomplice in Thailand, and Chandrika, the intelligence officer who keeps an eye on him.

Dhondy’s prose is casual and brisk in its depiction of amorality, dealing with surfaces and not venturing within. At one point, he airily has Thhat speak of existential themes, linking his account with those of others such as Camus and Gide – and gilding the lily by going on to speak of the Gita’s maya. If this, indeed, is what the novel sets out to do, it’s implausible, not to mention ill-conceived.

Towards the end, The Bikini Murders places Thhat at the periphery of recent events, from the Kandahar hijack to 9/11 to Daniel Pearl to Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. There are so many twists, turns and reversals by this point that one is reminded of a juggler with too many balls in the air desperately trying to keep his balance. Given that the novel’s jacket is a monument to garishness, you can judge this book by its cover.

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