[Despite my well-documented aversion to the small review spaces in mainstream media – and the limitations of the 300-word format – there are times when it’s relaxing to be able to do a short write-up about a book that I enjoyed but couldn't get too analytical about. Have been doing a few for the weekly column I write for the new Sunday Guardian paper, and will put these up here every now and again]
Private investigator Kasthuri Kumar, the narrator of Smita Jain’s Piggies on the Railway, is a kick-ass heroine. She does interior monologues in the style of Philip Marlowe and other hardboiled detectives in 1930s crime fiction. But this being a book that – improbably but successfully – combines a detective story with chick-lit, Kasthuri (also known as Katie) has more on her mind than just solving the kidnapping case assigned to her. For starters, her loins turn to mush whenever she’s in the presence of Kaustav Kapoor, the handsome movie producer who has hired her to trace his missing heroine. Then there’s the dashing Tejas Deshpande, her rival in the sleuthing business but a potential bedfellow in more way than one. And as if this weren’t enough for a girl to deal with, she can’t stop having “break-up sex” with her ex-boyfriend. (Which lands her into potential trouble when the ex-boyfriend’s wife turns up dead.)
I didn’t expect much from Piggies on the Railway when I started it – in fact, honestly speaking, I didn’t expect to finish it – but Jain’s smart, sassy style grew on me. As a mystery, this isn’t up to the Agatha Christie or P D James standard (there’s something a little random about the denouement, which occurs in the last four or five pages; you get the impression that with very minor tweaking it would have been equally possible for the murderer to turn out to be someone else) but the fun lies in the journey, not the destination. Events unfold at a quick pace and it’s refreshing to come across a female protagonist who has an edgy sense of humour, a strong sexual appetite and a short fuse, but who also manages to be ditzy and likable. (When she daydreams about winning the Nobel Prize for Physics, she's fuzzy about the details but she's very sure that she’ll be wearing “a shimmering red Valentino gown with black Fendi peep toes”.) This is apparently the first in a series of books featuring Katie and I think she’ll make a good recurring character.
I did feel that the writing (or the editing) could have been crisper in places; there are many examples of sentences that could have lost flab – enough, perhaps, to reduce a 400-page book by 50 or so pages. But that’s my only real complaint about this otherwise pleasing novel.