RV Raman is no stranger to crime fiction. With A Will To Kill, he moves the scene of the crime from the swanky conference rooms of the corporate world to a countryside manor replete with a dense fog and the terrors that come with it. The first in his new murder series, the book features the ageing, wheelchair-bound patriarch Bhaskar Fernandes, his warring clan and a host of busybodies that populate their family home—the remote Greybrooke Manor.
To evade death at the hands of scheming inheritors, Bhaskar makes two wills—how he dies decides which will is executed. Raman uses the picturesque setting of the Nilgiri Hills, with nostalgic prose that evokes the scenery of an ‘Incredible India’ advertisement. His rather spare use of technology and mobile phones preserves the slow pace of small town setting.
Written in the same vein as the works of Doyle and Christie, A Will To Kill introduces detective Harith Athreya, who channels both Holmes and Poirot. Athreya employs the same deductive faculties as Holmes. An early scene where Athreya glances at a letter and draws inferences about its writer is reminiscent of A Scandal in Bohemia. From Hercule Poirot, Athreya chooses to borrow ‘a flair for the dramatic’ in the way he conducts his drop a-bombshell-and-observe-reaction meals and ends the case with the Belgian’s signature dramatic denouement.
The book gives a wide berth to the usual clichés of the detective archetype—lonely and isolated, cynical and jaded, socially awkward, brooding, rule breaking and bending, taking the law into their own hands, haunted by nightmares of their past, personal demons, substance abuse, massive egos, having personal eccentricities and obsessions. By contrast, Athreya is a breath of fresh air—he’s congenial enough to be a family man and is all about the work. He’s the good, clean, family entertainment equivalent of the detective universe, so squeaky clean that he could quietly slip into a Sooraj Barjatya film.
A Will To Kill is populated with the signature hallmarks of a country-house mystery—a landslide that has cut off access to the remote valley that houses Greybrooke Manor and a cast that is made up of the privileged and retired army-men with bushy moustaches. What enhances this little bubble effect is the writing. Raman uses a smattering of rather quaint English phrases that bring an old-fashioned charm to the setting, further dislocating it from the present.
It is hard to determine time when one is evoking the atmosphere of the past while setting the narrative in the present. Raman manages this skilfully by using speech props like contemporary writer Yuval Harari and other present day pop-culture references.
A Will To Kill is a worthy start to the expansion of Raman’s oeuvre. However, at the risk of sounding nit-picky, one would have hoped to see more play given to the phantasmal threat being explored throughout the novel, after being given such a promising start. Instead, it peters out quite quickly and is treated like an afterthought, buried in a short explanation right at the end.
A good murder mystery is much like a poker game between the author, his detective and the reader, with the latter two vying to get to the truth first. Each tries to guess the hand of the other, and as new information is slowly released,
they keep raising their stakes. Much like a riveting poker game, the book, keeps introducing complications after every round. Raman layers the core murder mystery with a host of subplots that cover adultery, blackmail, coercion, art heists and the like. These are intriguing to read and intrinsic to the main mystery. The linkages of these are complex, well structured and will hold great appeal for the amateur sleuth within the reader.
The only fault I could find with the plot was that the red herring is perhaps played so strongly that to the frequent mystery reader the character becomes easy to spot as such. But the end reveal makes up for this and any other quibbles the reader might have. Raman pulls out a few aces right at the end that are near-impossible to anticipate. Similar to the well-oiled hinges of the chapel door, at the scene of the crime, his villain is smooth, silent and deadly.
A Will To Kill is an engrossing read that does due justice to the small world of murder mysteries indigenous to India. We may not have our own Sherlock or Poirot, but the narrative tradition of Christie and Doyle has found a worthy successor in RV Raman. I cannot wait to read more of Harith Athreya’s adventures; and perhaps next time he’ll have a trusty aide of his own, a recurring nemesis to match and a signature catchphrase to boot