The excellent Mrs Peabody Investigates introduced me to the term respite crime, though my need for it pre-dated the name by many years. Happily during my current period of need one of Mrs P’s recommendations in this increasingly essential category became available from my library. It was indeed the perfect respite from both the real world and darker fictional offerings.
It introduces us to Ashwin Chopra: a decorated and well-respected Inspector with the Mumbai police. As the book opens it is his last day at work. He is retiring early, and unwillingly, due to ill health. Before he goes he encounters a grieving woman who declares that her son’s death is being left uninvestigated because their family is poor. But even after he has fulfilled his last official duty Chopra can’t forget the woman and her young son. He tries to interest the man who replaced him but that proves fruitless so Chopra undertakes his own, private investigation. With help from old friends and a new one.
The new one is a baby elephant that Chopra inherits from a favoured uncle. Ganesh is “no ordinary elephant” according to Chopra’s uncle and this does prove to be the case. At first Ganesh – who is installed in the grounds of the apartment building in which Chopra and his wife Poppy live – appears to be pining for something and Chopra has to take a crash course in elephant care. But as the book progresses Ganesh proves to have skills that assist Chopra in very practical ways. I’m not normally a big fan of semi-anthropomorphised animal characters that do implausible (if not impossible) things. But Ganesh got under my skin with his particular mix of cuteness, melancholy and sixth sense.
I don’t know if it’s despite the surreal elements – such as Chopra tailing a suspect through the streets of Mumbai with a 200kg elephant in tow – or because of them that the book does manage to have a realistic sensibility but I suspect it’s the former. It seems to me that Khan, who has lived and worked in India for long stretches of time, has captured the exciting chaos of Mumbai as it undergoes its transition from a traditional culture to a more modern one very well and that is partly due to the inclusion of oddball elements such as a sentient elephant. He juxtaposes the book’s lighter elements with depictions of the city’s poorer areas and the systemic corruption that pervades some segments of society so that the overall picture is accessible in a way that a wholly dark – or light – book would not be.
There is real poignancy too with the relationship between Chopra and his wife and the way they individually deal with their unwanted childlessness. I thought perhaps things were stretched a bit too far when Poppy dreamed up her scheme to feign a pregnancy under her observant husband’s watchful eye but the resolution of this thread sat well enough that I found it easy to forgive this very minor flaw.
I will definitely be continuing with this series and happily recommend it to those who like their crime fiction to have some lighter moments amidst the gritty realities. And I defy anyone not to be won over by the elephant.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Hodder and Stoughton, 2015
Length 304 pages
Book Series #1 in the Baby Ganesh series
Source of review copy Borrowed from the library