It’s safe to say that this is the only series you’ll find where the detective has a baby elephant trotting along with him to the crime scene. Ganesh is a very sympathetic, and empathetic, character who travels in lifts, eats in restaurants and stays in hotels without flapping an ear. I must admit this drove me to Google to find out how long it takes a baby elephant grow to full size – 15-20 years, so there’s probably a bit more mileage to be made from this gimmick.
You wouldn’t expect a crime novel with a baby elephant as a star character to be dark and bloody, and this isn’t. Ashwin Chopra, unwillingly retired from the police force because of a heart condition, is now working as a private investigator. He’s one of those incorruptible types, a quiet hero who laments the corruption he sees all around him in officialdom. When a wealthy American art collector is found stabbed in the ritzy Grand Raj hotel the local authorities want to call it a suicide and shut it down quickly, but Chopra’s instincts tell him otherwise, and he won’t be deterred. At the same time his wife Poppy becomes embroiled in a rather silly story about a missing bride who seems to have run away from the ostentatious wedding that’s supposed to be happening at the hotel – an overly-contrived story, but interesting for the history of the two families involved, survivors of the old princely system who are caught up in the changing world of modern India.
There’s another interesting turn into Indian history as Chopra patiently works through the labyrinth of Indian bureaucracy back to the 1980s when the Indian government was wooing international capital to carry out major economic reforms. In the process corners were cut and disasters covered up. He thinks he’s found the reason for the murder – but then there’s another twist.
As a detective story it rolls along nicely, but the real charm of the book is the life and colour of its Mumbai setting:
A warm breeze blew in from the blue expanse of Mumbai’s harbour, in which a thousand and one seagoing vessels bobbed on the chop. The tourists attracted locals of every ilk and design. Emaciated beggars, owl-eyed urchins, sombre lepers, ice-cream salesmen, pedalling bicycle carts, peanut vendors brandishing twists of newspaper, eunuchs in colourful saris and designer stubble, snake-charmers, dugdugdee drum-beaters, tonga-wallahs … a howling menagerie of Mumbai’s finest. (4)