The Monochrome Madonna
Penguin Rs 250 pp 256
‘I’d always known I’d be stuck with a corpse some day, probably in the first week of October.’ What a zinger of a first line for a murder mystery. It made me want to drop everything and curl up and read it at once. But it wasn’t only the first line that made me think reading this book would be rather a good thing. It’s the fact that this book is The Monochrome Madonna by Kalpana Swaminathan, and it’s the third in her series featuring Lalli, the retired police detective. I’d read and enjoyed the first two, The Page 3 Murders and The Gardener’s Song, so I was happy to see the third.
The plot seemed interesting too. While Lalli is away on her annual holiday, her niece Sita, the narrator, is suddenly summoned by Sitara, an old college mate. “I think I’m going to die,” Sitara says faintly. But when Sita gets to Sitara’s place, it isn’t Sitara’s lifeless body she finds. There is a corpse, but it’s that of a complete stranger.
Sitara has been drugged but is alive. But what happened there? Who was the man who was killed? Why does Sitara behave in a strange manner, at once hysterical and coldly composed? Why does she insist she killed the man? And why does her husband Vinay’s version of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, photoshopped with Sitara’s face and with its colours reduced to monochrome, strike Sita and later, Lalli, as significant? Sita is baffled. But it’s her first murder without Lalli. So she gamely tries to figure things out. Naturally, since she isn’t Lalli, her conclusions turn out to be meaningless. So the hunt is still on. So far, so good then. All the elements of the mystery were in place. All it needed was Lalli’s return, and soon I’d know what was what.
Unfortunately, while at the end I knew what had happened and why, by the time I got there, I didn’t care. In fact I’m rather put off by Lalli, Savio, Sita, Sitara and Vinay. In keeping with her character in the two earlier books, Lalli is a woman of mystery, never revealing her conclusions till the very end. But in The Monochrome Madonna, this trait is taken too far. It doesn’t seem like detective holdback. It seems like author holdback and that is unfair.
Savio conducts his investigation in a manner that seems rather unlikely for any member of an Indian police force, however sensitive he may be. Sita’s strong belief in Sitara seems forced given Sitara’s strange behaviour and somewhat peculiar past. Vinay’s lack of conviction about his own role in the murder is unnecessarily drawn out. And there is a subplot that is totally unnecessary.
The Monochrome Madonna is meant to be a psychological thriller. ‘Do we really know the people we think we know?’ it asks. I wish the question hadn’t been answered in such a laboured manner.
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