Literary Review

A crackling good yarn

Subhas Chandra Bose in a guest role, Nazi gold, a sprinkling of
 murders make for a great thriller.

The Gold of their Regrets; Ravi Shankar Etteth; Penguin; Rs 250.

First, the good news. This is a crackling good yarn, a murder
 mystery that moves at a rapid pace, is peopled with
ingenious characters and at its centre, holds a story
that in turn, holds the reader’s interest all through.
Next, the story; without spoilers. The gold of the
protagonists’ regrets is a Nazi cache, a German war
chest, evil gold, death gold, ill-begotten gold, but of
course. The ingots, worth all of £30 million, is what a
 certain S.C. Bose was carrying with him on what was
 to be the leader’s last war-time sortie, on the flight that
crashed in the fetid jungles on the Indo-Burma border.

And where there is gold, there has to be greed and greedy
 people; here, a trio makes off with the gleaming bars that
 came from Nazi coffers and was intended to re-infuse fresh
 blood into the war against those who ruled India.

The characters
Years on, the trio is stalked by a mysterious killer, a man of
method, great economy of emotion and movement, deadly
of intent and virtually unstoppable. Attempting to stop him
are characters from Etteth’s earlier book The Village of 
Widows, DCP Anna Khan, the improbable Demon Cop,
and her companion, Jay Samorin, profiler of crime
nonpareil, the man who keeps a couple of fossas
(Madagascar hunting cats for those who may not know,
 which includes most of us) as domesticated pet cats.
As the story unwinds, we meet with a motley cast that
 includes a pair of lesbians, some dwarves and suchlike,
 and criss-cross briskly across Shan country in Myanmar,
 Delhi, Rishikesh, Kashmir, Dehra Dun, to end up in a
 private estate near Palghat, Kerala.

At times, Etteth’s trademark linguistic flourishes threaten
 to tug the reader’s gaze away from the thrill of the chase.
 Some situations are a bit contrived and Anna Khan’s
emotional baggage (torn between mourning for her
murdered husband Irfan Khan and her lover, Samorin)
tends to loosen the moorings of the narrative.

The relationship between Samorin and Anna comes through
 as just a tad chauvinistic (in one episode they make love
with her holding her weapon!); he is as much her guardian
 angel as lover. And, amusingly, or perhaps bemusingly,
 there are dollops aplenty of haute lifestyle accessories
from Versace to Prada and Aigner, Partager to Armani
that dot the story. All of this doesn’t stick in the craw of
the tale, though.

Etteth artfully places a red herring in the reader’s path for
a while, in a neat twist; the reader doesn’t know quite what
to make of Khan’s assistant Tamang. Is he really what he
 seems to be?

Then again, the character who dominates just about all
 the parts she features in is the enigmatic and ageless
Tulsi. Tulsi, Jay Samorin’s on-off inamorata and
protectoress, quite probably the deity at whose altar
 he worships, too, is a touch of pure exotica.

All the bits about the ancient Chinese art of qui that straddles
 martial art and spirituality, is as entertaining as it is informative.
The twist at the end, though, is a bit of a stretch; equally
surprising is the fact that the killer doesn’t quite fit the image
 the reader is persuaded to form of him.

“But there was never a passage that did not leave behind
a sign, however small,” it says in The Gold of their 
Regrets. Etteth has followed that principle and in doing so,
 makes the book a fun read. A good murder mystery from
a consummate word-wielder.

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