One of Mumbai’s most memorable literary sleuths, the kanjivaram-clad Lalli from writer Kalpana Swaminathan’s Lalli mysteries, has close competition in the equally unlikely figure of Inspector Waghmare, the eccentric investigator in journalist Mohamed Thaver’s first novel, In Plain Sight (HarperCollins India). A police procedural with a twist, the story is set in India’s business capital, also famous as the hotbed of the underworld, where Thaver works as a crime reporter. Apart from his insider’s knowledge of the beat, his insights into the working methods of the police play a role in shaping the plot—especially those cruxes that make or break a crime thriller.
In Plain Sight begins with Rohan, a rookie reporter who must learn the ins and outs of his beat quickly, hitting the streets of Mumbai, under the hawk eyes of his boss, Ritwik. While the early pages establish Rohan’s career—the ups and downs, false starts and petty betrayals that are part of his learning curve—the action gains momentum with a series of rapes and murders in the Nehru Nagar neighbourhood. Three juvenile girls go missing, one after the other, and their mutilated bodies are found hours later around the area. The perpetrator of these heinous crimes makes a couple of false moves but then covers up deftly, eventually emerging as a master at hiding all the traces.
Thaver’s story moves with the pace and suspense of a satisfying thriller but it does far more than join the dots. Interspersed with the narrative are glimpses into the politics of the police force, riddled with intrigues hatched by insecure officials, and passages that reveal dodgy journalistic ethics, also corrupted by envy and the rat race to get exclusive stories, no matter what the cost. As a newbie in a major newsroom, Rohan is witness to the pressures under which news hounds must deliver. He is thrown into the deep end, where seemingly cordial colleagues don’t feel squeamish at all before stabbing others in the back (no pun there). Thaver humanises the world of breaking news, warts and all, especially the people who go out every day, despite palpable dangers, and learn to walk a fine balance between cultivating police sources and being critical of them.
It may be possible to make an informed guess about the murderer’s identity three-quarters into the story, and even get it right. Indeed, the book’s title teasingly alludes to how obvious the solution to the mystery is (it really isn’t). However, Thaver manages to hold the reader’s attention till the very end as he takes us through the nitty-gritties of establishing a watertight case for conviction.
Inspector Waghmare, crafted in the mould of the classic oddball investigator, remains a flawed hero, opting for a rural posting in the end, away from the big city teeming with evil. As readers, however, we hope to see him back in action before long.