GANGS of pretend vampires and werewolves roam the streets of Delhi as three cops find themselves pursuing a series of cases in Avtar Singh’s Necropolis, a crime drama that interweaves a supernatural thread into its peculiar yarn. In a literal instance of “digital crime”, an attacker terrorises the city by collecting fingers from a number of unwilling donors. His victims are “drawn from the ranks of the peripherally urban — rickshaw-wallahs, casual labourers and the like”. The perpetrator incapacitates his prey with a blow to the head delivered from behind, and then administers an injection to ensure the mark doesn’t regain consciousness, removes a finger, and bandages the hand to minimise the blood loss. Deputy commissioner of police, Sajan Dayal, a lawman “noted for his perspicacity in matters criminal”, heads the task force set up to deal with the matter. Assisting him is his immediate subordinate, “a slow-moving Punjabi” named Kapoor who is a legend in the Delhi police, and smart, idealistic young cyber crime officer Smita Dhingra.
Even though the novel commences with the discovery of the body of a young man, the thread is far from resolved. The same night that the body is recovered from a wooded area next to an old village in Delhi, the elusive Razia disappears without a trace. Known as the Colonel because of her vaguely military outfits, she is a prominent presence in the city’s nightlife, yet no photos exist of her; she may even be hundreds of years old and is suspected by some of being a vampire.
As the would-be vampires and lycans battle each other across the city, Dayal and his cohorts try to track down a specific member of the former group, a young man wearing a keffiyeh. Along the way, other cases — like the rape of a young woman, the murder of a West African drug dealer, and the kidnapping of a child — demand their attention, the resolution of these crimes often complicated by political pressures. As its criminal underbelly is exposed, the setting starts to seem more reminiscent of Batman’s Gotham than India’s capital. It’s a dark, decadent environ, rife with vice and corruption, with a bevy of bad guys causing trouble and shady characters mysteriously appearing whenever they see fit.
There is, however, disconnect between the novel’s style and content. The book finds itself battling its literary and detective sensibilities and ultimately satisfies neither. The attention wanders from the story to Delhi’s history and surroundings instead of focusing on the mystery at hand. Long-winded descriptions of the city’s past and present are peppered throughout the text, which make the narrative’s progress slow and uneven, draining the tale of much-needed intensity. Add to that the heavy prose and wordy style of writing and the book becomes a chore to read. After a while, both the style and substance start to feel repetitive.
But while its leisurely pace may not be to everyone’s taste, the novel leaves no doubt that Singh is both knowledgeable and passionate about his subject matter, and if you’d like to read about an enigmatic metropolis as it changes through the seasons, then it is this very element of the novel that you will find the most fascinating. The author also raises several social issues, with each tragedy highlighting a prevalent problem; even though the book doesn’t explore these issues in depth, it still leaves you with much to ponder.
The characters of the investigators are conventional but well crafted, although they are not as engaging as one would have hoped. Nor is there much reason to be invested in their stories. There isn’t much emotional depth to the proceedings, and it’s hard, for instance, to be interested in the drama surrounding Razia’s connection and relationship with Dayal or indeed her fate, even if what she ultimately represents is intrinsic to the story.
All in all, if you like your crime fiction fast-paced and focused, then Necropolis isn’t for you, but if you’re a fan of descriptive, literary writing and aren’t likely to be disappointed by unsatisfying mysteries, then you will probably enjoy this book.
By Avtar Singh
Harper Collins, India