A Cut Like Wound

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Cut Like Wound, Anita Nair, book reviewA Cut Like Wound is the latest book by one of my favourite Indian writers, Anita Nair, and it’s a very new direction for her to take.She normally writes about the rotten lot of Indian women or complicated emotionally-charged romances between unlikely people. I certainly wasn’t expecting her to suddenly come out with a crime novel, apparently the first in a yet-to-be written series if the cover blurb of ‘Introducing Inspector Gowda’ is to be believed. I didn’t expect Nair to pack in all her literary fiction and go down the crime route – but of course I knew she’d do it well.

In a dark alley in Bangalore, the charred body of a young male prostitute is found one night by a passing photographer. Whilst initial suspicions are that the man has ‘just’ been set alight, an autopsy shows he shares the same marks around his neck as another man, found elsewhere and killed the same night. There seems no obvious connection between the two but both have been strangled with a ligature. In each case there is crushed glass in the wound, the sort of glass used to coat the strings of fighting kites. Consequently the dead men have been strangled but have a ‘cut-like wound’. The weapon and the damage it has caused are not ones that Inspector Gowda of the Bangalore Police has seen before. His superiors (in rank, if not in intellect) are uninterested in his raving about serial killers. As more men are added to the count of the dead, they’re still not that bothered, after all if none of the relatives are kicking up a big fuss, there are other fish to fry.

As readers we know who the killer is – but then again, we don’t. We know it’s a beautiful young woman who isn’t a woman. We meet her very early in the book, applying make-up to cover any stubble shadow, putting on her jewellery, dressing in an expensive sari and leaving the house against the advice of a friend. We know how and why she killed the first two men, and then as the book progresses, we watch and learn as she despatches a whole load more to meet their makers. What we don’t know is who she is when she’s not a she – if you see what I mean. We have plenty of possible candidates, most of them linked to a local gangster-turned-politician called Corporator Ravikumar. Ravikumar’s household includes his brother Chikka, an elderly eunuch called Akka who once saved his life, a big hairy henchman called ‘King Kong’ who acts as his ‘muscle’, and a bunch of transvestites (or possibly transexuals – it doesn’t get too precise and I know this is a very complex area of Indian sub-culture) who help him in his weekly ritual of worship to his favourite goddess.

Inspector Gowda is a middle-aged failure, a man once so brilliant that all his fellow officers marveled at his deductive reasoning, he has now been consigned to the filing cabinet of police life. His career has stalled, his superiors treat him badly and his wife has moved away to support his son through medical school, leaving him not as bothered as he probably should be. An old school friend comes back to Bangalore and reintroduces Gowda to his old student sweetheart, a woman who passed him over for a man from whom she’s now estranged. She’s interested and available and keen to turn back the clock. Gowda is torn between doing what’s right and turning back the clock with his ex-love. This ‘will-they-won’t-they’ storyline irritated the heck out of me and I kept imagining that it could only be relevant if Urmilla (the love interest) turned out to be somehow implicated in the whole sorry mess. There were too many coincidences – her friendship with the photographer who found the charred man and her manipulation of Gowda into opening a photography exhibition were plot lines that fizzled out without any kind of resolution. Gowda’s relationship with his son was handled quite nicely, but perhaps with a degree of convenience that seemed unauthentic.

Just as Morse needed Lewis, and Sherlock Holmes needed Dr Watson, every literary detective needs a side-kick and Inspector Gowda is no exception. The unlikely Batman to his Robin is Sub-Inspector Santosh, a young man who is thrilled to be working with Gowda and has heard many stories of his boss’s great sleuthing powers. Santosh still believes the police are there to do good, to stop evil and solve crimes. He’s not been corrupted into the apathy of his older colleagues and he’s excited to spend time with the older man. He is the clean, fresh, innocent to Gowda’s jaded old has-been and he’s a lovely fellow to spend time with. Yes, he’s wet behind the ears but in a book filled with death and corruption, it’s good to have one character with his halo still shining.

I’ve read a lot of books featuring hijras (transexuals) and even some autobiographies of these women and what they’ve been through so I know enough to follow some of the finer parts of the plot. Whether the average western reader without that background reading would make head or tail of this, I’m not sure. This is a book written for the Indian market and Nair’s readers will know everything I know and probably much more but I can see this may not be the best of possible export plot-lines.

As Indian crime fiction goes, this isn’t bad but it’s not brilliant. In comparison with Nair’s usual outstanding writing, it does feel a little bit like she’s slumming it in the wrong genre. It’s like someone shut the poor woman in a shed with a shelf full of crime novels and said “Go on, prove you can do it”. And she has proven that she can do something that she probably should never really have lowered herself into trying. If you asked Beethoven to write a Pot Noodle jingle, it would probably be an entirely acceptable Pot Noodle jingle but you’d still be left thinking he could have done more with his time. That’s how I felt reading this – good for a Pot Noodle, but she could have written a Heston Blumenthal tasting menu of 15 courses of molecular gastronomy.

I like Nair and I like the odd bit of crime fiction. I even liked Gowda and Santosh but I couldn’t help feeling she could have done something better.

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Cut Like Wound, A
by Anita Nair

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