If you want to know the innermost core of a city, its hopes, dreams, and fears, read its crime fiction. If you want to explore every facet of that core, revealed by different points of view, read Akashic Books’ noir series, where a number of writers, all well familiar with their city (or in some volumes their state or country), each write a crime story about it.
The latest in this series, Mumbai Noir, is a collection of “all-new” stories by fifteen writers, most of them living, or having once lived, in Mumbai. And that is what makes these stories so compelling—each selection is steeped in a knowledgeable sense of place, and aknowledge of the often grisly criminal acts that occur in that place.
“Between 1993 and 20ll,” the introduction states, “Mumbai has weathered eight terror attacks.” Its over twelve million residents “have become unwitting authorities on all the ways that an ordinary day in the city can turn out to be one’s last.” Small wonder that the opening stories in this book involve bomb blasts, the need to be alert to possible terrorists, the caution and vigilance that turned “the Mumbai evening…into a night that was no longer Bombay.”
The stories that follow argue with that assertion. Going from the shadowed world of the transgendered hijira, to the dance halls where beautiful women command a price perhaps too high, to the streets where an alluring body may not be what it seems, Mumbai certainly still seems to have what one man calls “The Juice.” Within this city, the crimes range from one that will make strong men turn pallid to an almost novelistic story of obsessive attraction told by both the stalker and the stalked, with an ambiguous ending that skillfully teases, puzzles, and evokes arguments.
An affluent woman hides from the world in her apartment that is housed in an “an all-vegetarian building” where her secret fear comes knocking on her door; gothic horror and perhaps the secret of eternal youth lurk in a traveler’s oasis that “disowned chaos” in a city that seemingly embodies it. Murder strikes in a fitness center as efficiently as it does within a motorized rickshaw, and as befits a collection of noir fiction, there are hard-boiled detectives and cynical cops to assess—if not solve —mysterious cases.
The writers of Mumbai Noir are male and female—including a pair of surgeons who write collaboratively to form one author. Contributors to this anthology lead IT firms, make films, take photographs, work at non-governmental organizations. The diversity of their interests leads to the diversity found within this collection, offering a tantalizing glimpse of their city beneath the darkness of their stories.
The wide-ranging ethnic differences found in Mumbai are reflected in the glossary at the back of the book, defining words from Hindi, Urdu, Maharathi, Punjabi, and Gujarati. A few of the terms are obscenities, still more have to do with food, which says quite a bit about this city.
Only the most hardened crime aficionados will read this in one sitting; the rest of us will come back to it again and again, drawn by the stories, the details, Mumbai.--Janet Brown