[23 September 2010]
The cover of Six Suspects proclaims “[A] Bollywood version of the board game Clue with a strain of screwball comedy thrown in…”
At times, while reading the book, there did seem to be a “professor in the library with a candlestick” kind of feeling. Much like the game of Clue, Vikas Swarup’s novel begins by giving us a finite number of suspects—as you can probably guess from the title—that number is six.
In the first section of the book, we learn that Vivek ‘Vicky’ Rai, a playboy and murderer, was shot during a party and that six of the party guests have both guns and motives. The book then flashes back to the previous year and slowly dances forward. “Murder may be messy, but truth is messier. Tying up loose ends will be difficult, I know. The life histories of all six suspects will need to be combed. Motives will have to be established. Evidence will need to be collated. And only then will we discover the real culprit…Which of the six will it be?” asks the investigative reporter who has sworn to crack the case.
Again, much like the game of Clue, the six subjects—The Bureaucrat, The Actress, The Tribal, The Politician, The Thief, and The American—each represent a stereotyped or stock character, and while they aren’t always the most realistic of characters, they are all interesting, in that watching a train wreck kind of way.
One thing Swarup does exceptionally well is create a distinct voice for each character. At times the juxtaposition is almost jarring—moving from, for example, the sexy and cynical actress to the doltish and naive American with just the flip of a page. We shift from “it’s tough being a celluloid goddess. For one, you have to look gorgeous all the time. You cannot fart, you cannot spit and you dare not yawn. Otherwise the next thing you know, your big fat wide-open mouth will be staring at you from the glossy pages of Maxim or Stardust” to ”today is the happiest day of my life. Even better than the day Vince Young led Texas on a fifty-six-yard touchdown drive against USC in the game’s final minutes to give the Longhorns their greatest ever victory in the Rose Bowl.”
Likewise, the book moves from some very realistic, and often sobering passages, that deal with violence, bigotry, or terrorism, to passages that topple over into the ridiculous. One page details a character’s thoughts as he is being held hostage by terrorists: “I couldn’t sleep that night. There were wars going on in the world about which I knew nothing. People were dying, kids still wet behind the ears were getting ready to blow themselves up and I didn’t even know what they were fighting for. It was as scary as it was real.” A few pages later, the same character responds to the notion of being de-briefed by stating “Holy Cow. You mean she’ll take off my underwear?”
Another interesting element, perhaps more reminiscent of Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone than Clue, is the mysticism. One of the six characters—The Bureaucrat—is at times Mohan Kumar, a retired government official and a rather unscrupulous womanizer but at other times seems to be “possessed”, perhaps by the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi. The multiple (and false) suspects, the epistolary format Swarup occasionally uses, and the somewhat expected “surprise” twist of an ending also seem reflective of Wilkie Collins’ detective fiction.
The multiple stories the book tells are compelling and at times interesting enough to make one forget the overarching mystery plotline. The American’s run in with terrorists and subsequent rescue by the CIA, the Actress’ “Cinderella Plan”, and the Romeo and Juliet theme that runs through the Thief’s tale would all, as individual pieces, make great short stories or novellas.
Lines like “I will be dead in approximately six minutes” make the book a page-turner, and while many of the main characters are stereotypes, some of the minor characters are more original. For example, a brutal inspector terrorizes his prisoners, but after gaining a confession, turns surprisingly philosophical. When asked why he beats the prisoners, the inspector replies “Actually, it is not to prove our strength, but to mask our weakness…We pick only on the poor and the powerless, because they cannot hit back.”
Just when it seems like the book has completely drifted away from the murder and mystery, Swarup draws the stories together until all the characters connect (or collide) and the many pieces of this incredibly detailed and complicated (and at close to 500 pages somewhat lengthy) novel meld together.
Six Suspects is a faced-paced and often entertaining read with some sparkling one liners and witty dialogue, but it’s also not quite a mystery, nor is it exactly a comedy. For audiences who like novels that defy classification, Six Suspects might be a very good pick.