Written by Vaseem Khan — Though debut crime fiction author Vaseem Khan was born in London, his experience working in the Indian subcontinent comes through clearly in his convincing portrayal of the people, culture, and politics of the complicated city of Mumbai. He’s managed to marry that deep knowledge with his more recent experience as well. Since returning to the UK in 2006, he has worked in the Department of Security and Crime Science at University College London.
If it’s possible to have a gentle crime novel, this is it, although the crimes he writes about are wicked, indeed, involving trafficking of young boys, murder, assault and that persistent and almost universal social disease, corruption. Our hero is 51-year-old police inspector Ashwin Chopra, who has been forced into an unwelcome early retirement by a heart attack. Just at that time, two unusual events occur. First, he hears the laments of a poor woman who claims that because her family has no status, the police will not investigate the death of her son. The authorities claim it was accidental; she says murder.
The other event is the receipt of the bizarre inheritance that gives the book its title – a baby elephant. The accompanying note warns Chopra “This is no ordinary elephant.” Indeed.
Chopra cannot forget the pleas of the woman and soon determines that in at least one respect her charges are correct: the police have no intention to investigate. He makes a few discreet inquiries himself, calling in favors from long-time colleagues throughout the investigative services. It’s the classic slippery slope to becoming a private detective.
At home, he’s at a loose end. His wife Poppy worries about his health and wants to keep him close, but that would mean also being close to his amusingly sour mother-in-law. Poppy is devastated that she is childless and his increasing absences from home she misinterprets as an affair. She concocts a desperate scheme to pretend she is pregnant and to pretend she’s given birth to her cousin’s child, conceived out of wedlock.
These family relations are charmingly told, tongue in cheek. In fact, the light and witty tone of the book is reminiscent of Alexander McCall Smith’s No1 Ladies Detective Agency series and Tarquin Hall’s tales about the Punjabi, Vish Puri – ‘India’s Most Private Investigator’.
We can’t take seriously the idea that Chopra tails a suspect accompanied by baby elephant Ganesha, or that the elephant manages to save Chopra’s life. I don’t believe Khan expects us to be that literal. Instead, his easy prose encourages us to relax into a foreign, sensuous environment where even the worst bad guys get what’s coming to them. Even though Chopra faces disappointments and difficulties, in the end he and his wife are on terra firma, Ganesha has a proper home, and the new Baby Ganesh Private Detective Agency is born.
There are a couple of literary blips. An important character has a double-identity, which Chopra eventually declares, but I’m not clear how he figured it out or if indeed he did. At another point he seeks help from a longtime friend who is a member of the legislative assembly, he gets a long lecture on the state of the nation. This information dump isn’t very well disguised and doesn’t seem like something an Indian politician would say to an old friend, particularly one with a distinguished career in public service. Nor is it plausible that the criminals would explain their dealings to Chopra in as much detail as they do. When Poppy tells Chopra she is pregnant, putting her fake-pregnancy scheme in motion, we don’t find out what comes of it. Perhaps she fessed up. If so how would Chopra react? If she kept mum, what happened? It’s not being nosy to wonder about these things, it’s a case of understanding the characters.
These quibbles can be glossed over in light of Khan’s many other accomplishments in creating this evocative tale, perfect for readers who enjoy taking things at a different pace and in an interesting setting. I’m delighted there’s more to come in this series!
CFL Rating: 3 Stars