"I've always known I'd be stuck with a corpse some day - possibly in the first week of October." Lalli, India's new woman private eye - in the manner of the classic 20th century detectives - finds her corpse and begins decoding the cryptic clues to the murder.
Detective writer Kalpana Swaminathan, a surgeon by profession, casts her net of intrigue right from the word go in her latest whodunit, The Monochrome Madonna, the third in the series, published this month.
The story begins on a note of turbulent drama. Seeta, Mumbai-based detective Lalli's niece, rushes to her aunt's friend Sitara's aid after a frantic telephone call, "I think I am dying". Sitara's home at 4, Kalina Sputniks is silent as Seeta rings the doorbell. The door gives in.
Right across Seeta in the living room shadowed by a gloom is a large framed print of Raphael's Sistine Madonna - a garish photo-shop print which resembles Sitara. the photograph startles Seeta and sets her thinking.
Deeper in the gloom lies the body of a man in a pool of blood. He is 40-something, dirty and unknown. Seeta summons the police.
Lalli, who is out of town, returns to take over from Seeta. The trail gathers pace from here - on a roller coaster ride of adventure and analysis. A gagged Sitara adds to the missing link till the identity of the murderer is revealed.
The book is the third in Swaminathan's Lalli series modelled on Agatha Christie's cult investigator Miss Jane Marple's and Sherlock Holmes' adventures.
In 2006, Swaminathan wrote her first volume The Page 3 Murders and followed it with the The Gardener's Song in 2008.
Private eye Lalli is "sixtyish, stylish and a former member of the force". The sprightly woman, however, is always the last resort for the police to crack "intelligent" murders.
Writer Swaminathan says the three cornerstones of a gripping thriller are "wit, pace and intelligence".
"You can't do without these three. If a writer has to slog over a murder mystery, then it is not working," she said.
Being a doctor helps Swaminathan constructs her plot and people it with layers. "None of my books are based on real-life scenarios. Monochrome is based on my observations of people rather than events," Swaminathan told IANS over email from Mumbai.
She cannot put numbers to the gestation period of the book. "It is hard to say how long a book took, after it is done. The idea is years old and then the people in it pop in and out of one's brain. Finally, when it is written, it makes it own schedule. For in truth, in the writing of the first line, the book is done. It is the thinking that makes the book, not the transcription," the novelist said.
Swaminathan's murder mysteries are set in varied locales. "In the first book, Lalli found her mystery at an invitation to a weekend party amid good food, music, sparkling company and then a murder," she said.
"In the second, Lalli was at home. It was a very domestic crime which is exactly what interests my detective the most. Monochrome too is domestic, but in a very different sort of way," the writer said.
Swaminathan's detective is a crusader. "Lalli has no patience with hypocrisy. It worries her that a society so fill of sordid crime still considers itself respectable. Labels like elite, middle class or low life carry no meaning for her. People are the same no matter how strange are the circumstance - and it is her job to understand them. She loves curiosities," the novelist said, shedding light into the mind of her detective.
Publishers Penguin Books-India, have launched an online game centred around the book in which the players help detective Lalli crack a murder mystery in a Mumbai apartment.
(Madhusree Chatterjee can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)