I grew up thinking all murder mysteries should be like Agatha Christie’s. It made perfect sense that a nursery rhyme (as in One, Two, Buckle My Shoe or Hickory Dickory Dock) should dictate the rhythm of the story. None of the books had sex and romance to distract from the mystery and the denouements were satisfactorily dramatic inquisitions were all suspects were represented and ticked off one by one till we arrived at the winner. You put the book down with a feeling of a job well done and a world set to order. The prose was clean – not so flashy that you got caught up in the turn of phrase but not so pale that you lost interest. Once I had gotten through her oeuvre though, I was left searching for other authors who would treat the murder mystery in quite the same pure way for a considerable length of time.
I still remember the over the moon feeling I got when I found Amanda Cross. As a bonus offer I met Auden through her when I read Poetic Justice. ‘If equal affection cannot be, let the more loving one be me’. At (a very young!) eighteen I thought it was the most romantic line ever! Then I read the whole poem and discovered what has since become one of my all time favourites. That one line was only a little gem in a poem studded with several bigger ones! It was also the only time I contemplated stealing a book from a lending library. I resisted for a while but thankfully Blossom found shiny copies of all the Amanda Cross books that I could buy before my resistance wore out! Asimov’s Whiff of Death and his Elijah Bailey series complete my gold standard of mystery writing. There is also the rather gruesome Patricia Cornwell with her Kay Scarpetta novels in my list of faves, but her later novels get too stuck up on her protagonists’ emotional issues. The far from gruesome Alexander McCall Smith with his No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series is also okay… but a leeetle too boring to make the gold standard.
At the end of last week (and what a miserable week it was!) when I want to Oxford for some comfort shopping, I picked up The Gardener’s Song by Kalpana Swaminathan. I think I may have discovered someone new. The book is set in Bombay and Lalli, the detective, is a retired policewoman who serves her guests vennpongal and stocks chaklis for the denouement. The narrator is her 34 year old single writer, neice who lives with her in a building in Ville Parle. The murder here was that of ‘Mr. Rao’ the busy body of the building and the lives and loves of all the (satisfyingly Indian!) residents are gone into in great detail. And the book does move to the rhythm of a rhyme – Lewis Carroll’s “The Gardener’s Song”. I’d say more but why give the plot away to perfectly literate readers like yourselves who can go buy the book and get the real thing and use it to while away a Sunday morning like I did.