The Monochrome Madonna
For the last year or so now, I have been avidly pursuing murder mysteries by an Indian author or with an Indian connection. Some have turned out very good, and some were simply tolerable. The latest in this genre to fall in my way is The Monochrome Madonna by Kalpana Swaminathan (of Kalpish Ratna fame). I approached the book very positively, having read much praise of their work, but I have to confess that The Monochrome Madonna left me feeling let down.
First, a quick outline. The Monochrome Madonna is a "Lalli mystery"; Lalli being an aging detective who has retired from the Bombay police. For much of the novel, however, Lalli is away, and it is her niece Sita (not Seeta, she reminds you, though I still can’t tell the difference) who is stuck with the corpse and the sleuthing.
Sita is all at ends, and the involvement of Ramona, a friend’s suicidal teenage daughter, doesn’t help. The couple in whose flat the corpse is found are an odd pair, and for much of the novel, it is not clear what any of the characters are thinking. It is only upon Lalli’s return that things start falling into place... slowly.
Part of the reason the book didn’t appeal to me much is the somewhat florid language. Especially in the first half of the book, everything is simile, and rather outlandish ones at that.
Festive in a hot pink and purple chaniya-choli, she looked like a designer candle, solid, waxy, sequined. Besides I didn’t like her voice. It rang like a coin at the end of every sentence, metallic, definite, with an exact sense of its value...The scalp had unfurled like a scarlet hibiscus, trailing sticky pistils of bloof all over his matted hair...There was a light bulb up there. It made the maw of that low space smoulder like a sulking volcano.
All this within ten pages, by which time I was wishing the book had a ruthless editor who would’ve chopped off the verbiage. This is part of the reason why, at 250 pages, the book feels too long.
The other (and perhaps larger) issue with The Monochrome Madonna is that the plot itself is too slow for a mystery. For long stretches, nothing much happens. Even when Lalli returns and things start happening, we are not given much insight into the motivations of any of the characters. There are interesting digressions, and Sita is the one character who comes out strongly etched, but it isn’t enough to make up for the somewhat vaguely written and numerous other characters.
At the end of a mystery novel, I like to be able to plot together a logical outline and trace how the author has led up to a certain ending. It is no fun to feel that character A could as well have been the murderer as B, and the only thing preventing that was the author’s whim. I guess what I’m saying is that the reader needs to be able to work with the detective and at the end feel that the culprit had the best possible motive and opportunity. With The Monochrome Madonna, this doesn’t happen, and the end feels quite arbitrary. To me, this is the worst sort of thing one could say about a murder mystery.