If you're anything like me, you are reading Swarup's name and thinking, "Hmmm...that name sounds familiar." Swarup, an Indian diplomat, is the author of the acclaimed novel, Q & A, which was adapted as the hit film Slumdog Millionaire. I have never read Q & A or watched Slumdog Millionaire, but the premise of Six Suspects intrigued me. I have always been fascinated with India, so I was curious to read a contemporary novel written by an Indian author that is set in that country. I also love experimental fiction, which Six Suspects, with its multi POV framework, definitely qualifies. I also love a good murder mystery. So I couldn't resist checking this novel out.
Rather than presenting a standard linear murder mystery plot that starts at the murder and then works through the investigation or starting at the beginning and tracing the murder's cause, Swarup does both. The novel starts with a newspaper article about Rai's murder, moves onto introductions to the suspects -- a corrupt Indian official who may be possessed by the spirit of Gandhi, a doltish Texas tourist, a sharp-tongued Bollywood actress, a charming thief from the slums of Delhi, a disoriented islander from the Andamans in search of a lost tribal heirloom, and Rai's own father -- all of which are conveyed through a variety of methods (first person narration, third person narration, diary entries, and tapped phone conversations) before moving into the stories behind each suspect's motive for killing Vicky and the circumstances behind each one's presence at the party. From there, the novel picks up with newspaper articles to detail the investigation into Rai's murder.
I thought that Swarup handled the complex plot well. The many-faceted plotline is never confusing, and the murder mystery aspect is handled well. Swarup plays fair with the reader, but I bet you won't guess the murderer's identity. The focus of this novel, though, is each individual suspect. The individual stories range from the commonplace (thwarted love) to the outrageous, but each one is compelling and handled with humor. Six Suspects is also an indictment of India's government, which Swarup portrays as corrupt, but the tale is both hilarious and outlandish enough to prevent this from descending into a heavy-handed lecture about politics.
There was a lot to like about this book, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. In fact, though it is over 450 pages, I got wrapped up in it and couldn't put it down. However, as you can imagine, some of the characters were more engaging than others and, hence, some of the stories were better than others. I adored most of the suspects and found many of them sympathetic, even if they really weren't. Shabnam, the Bollywood star, and Eketi, the mischievous islander, both go squarely in this category, as does my absolute favorite of the characters: Munna, the thief. (He reminded me so much of Moist von Lipwig from Discworld. I have a weakness for roguish, good-hearted charmsters...) Even the stories of two of the least-likeable characters, the two government officials, are entertaining. The story of Mohan, the possessed one, is weirdly funny and the story of Jaggarnat, Vicky's father, is an intriguing tale of corruption.
But, and this is a big but, I hated the story line involving Larry, the American tourist. (Pardon me while I stand on my soapbox and scream.) I thought this particular subplot of terrorist kidnapping and mail order brides and mistaken identity, though amusing at times, was horribly over done and melodramatic. I could have handled that, but Larry was intolerable and stereotypical. His first person narration was chock full of irritating yokel sayings, some of which were funny, but the sheer quantity of them was unnerving. It was distracting to read several corny similes like "I was as confused as a cow on Astroturf" on every page. (I'll admit some of them were pretty darn funny, but they're the ones that are unprintable here *sigh* or they are so outrageous that no person with anything remotely resembling brain cells would ever say them seriously.) It was as if Swarup just decided to cram every cheesy Texas saying known to man into Larry's story. It wasn't logical either, because most of Larry's narration was fairly well-spoken and grammatically correct, so it was a glaring inconsistency to me. What aggravated me the most, though, was how stereotypical Larry was. It disappointed me that all of the other characters were so well-crafted and complex, yet Larry was the proverbial idiotic hick who was incapable of realizing anything, whether he was being stood up or mugged. As a Southerner, I think the stereotype that we're all a bunch of toothless ignoramuses has gotten old fast. As a reader, I was vexed that Sawrup choose the easy way out with this character. I really wish that Swarup had developed Larry as well as he did his other characters. (My soapbox rant is officially over.)
Six Suspects is a superb book with a lot to offer -- complex structure, intriguing mystery, and scathing social satire. Overall, I recommend the book for anyone who loves postmodernist experimental fare, mysteries, or Indian culture. Though I was disappointed in Larry, I though the rest of the book, and Swarup's undeniable talent, more than made up for that. I wouldn't mind rereading this book, and I look forward to reading Q & A and the third novel that Swarup is reputedly working on.