Mystery Thriller

The Hawa Mahal Murders (2019) – Book Review

Nita J. Kulkarni’s debut novel, The Hawa Mahal Murders (2019), is like a cigar. Everything unfolds slowly but the aftertaste is worth the ride. Find out more below in this review of her work.

The Plot: When Smita moves in to an apartment in the famed Hawa Mahal with her second husband Karan Joshi and her two children from her previous marriage, everything suggests this is a compound for the elite. However, there is an overpowering scent present in the air. And that is the stench of death!

After gruesome murders befitting the title of this book take place, there are so many suspects, victims and plot twists that every chapter turns out to be a page turner.

The Review: The character construction is the finest factor of this foremost work. What you would notice especially if you are not only an enthusiast of detective fiction but also an avid reader of Indian English Literature, is that even though the individuals are a tad stereotypical, you can relate to them particularly if you are desi yourself.

Although, the ensemble is well-constructed, my favorite characters are junior officers Billu and Bhat as they seem to come across as your garden-variety Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Other characters are likewise fascinating like Ria Khan, Sita, and of course, the ever-elusive Karan Joshi.

Next comes the world-building. The descriptions are vivid and even though I have never been to India myself, their culture is a global phenomenon and it is rightfully depicted here. The rain of Delhi reminded me of Lahore’s monsoon season. I have often heard Delhi and Lahore are sister cities and Mrs. Kulkarni is able to prove this point with her fictional prowess.

The pacing is heart-pounding and this novel is as unputdownable as a James Patterson book. And as a lover of fast-paced fiction, if I hadn’t been COVID positive when reading The Hawa Mahal Murders, I would have concluded it in a single setting instead of 3 to 4 days. The editing by Vishwakarma Publications is also excellent as I did not come across any grammatical errors or typos in regards to my secondary level of English.

However, just like any other first work of fiction, The Hawa Mahal Murders does fall prey to noticeable and amateurish flaws.

For example, the plot as a whole is not only a tad cliched but it takes a while for it to come to life. Once Roger Ebert quoted that if a feature film doesn’t pique your interest in the initial 20 minutes then the creative team behind it has failed to make the venture intriguing for you as a spectator. Same is the case with this novel. It is captivating throughout but the first half might be too fast-paced for people who are not veteran readers of writers like James Patterson, Sidney Sheldon, etc.

Mrs. Kulkarni might have Agatha Christie’s finesse in character construction and world-building, but she lacks the plotting skills of superior writers of detective fiction such as Conan Arthur Doyle and Michael Connelly or even of the more factual of crime fiction writers like Patricia Cornwell and Ruth Rendell.

Nevertheless, fans of the fast-paced variety of fiction, would still find it engaging from start to finish. The second and third acts are absolutely mind-blowing and it wouldn’t matter if you prefer slow or fast-paced thrillers as the last half is so polished, with a more than adequate number of twists and turns.

Furthermore, this novel might not come across as enjoyable to readers outside of the South Asian diaspora. I say this having read and reviewed over 100 books on Goodreads, with 80% of them falling in the mystery/thriller genre, which is a category I myself have contributed to in the past with 2 self-published short-story collections. You can browse through my catalog on Amazon here.

If I were to suggest a similar book to The Hawa Mahal Murders it would be Khalid Hasan’s excellent English-language translation of Saadat Hasan Manto’s fiction and essays titled Bitter Fruit (2009) though the latter has better description despite the late Mr. Hasan having been of South Asian nationality like Mrs. Kulkarni herself.

Majority of the descriptive details which Mrs. Kulkarni has up her sleeve come across as YA instead of adult-orientated. I often felt that I was reading a South Asian rendition of a Fear Street Super Chiller entry written by R.L. Stine. Maybe The Hawa Mahal Murders might have been better intended as a young-adult thriller?

Moreover, though the overall character construction is awe-inspiring, Mrs. Kulkarni also shows off her research skills by diving into the intricacies of India’s law enforcement agencies (very similar to Pakistan’s criminal justice department in my opinion). The story itself is divided into dual points of view: the citizen (Smita) and the law (Rege) but only the latter’s perspective managed to captivate me for the majority of the narrative. And this is another reason why the first half of the novel did not register with me that well, and it might also lead to veteran mystery readers to put down the novel after the starting 20-30 pages; especially those who are used to more vivid descriptions and superior plot development.

The Verdict: Just like the saying goes, “All’s well that ends well”, this also holds true for The Hawa Mahal Murders. By getting this work traditionally published, Nita J. Kulkarni has made a significant contribution to the South Asian subgenre of crime fiction, but it is sadly only that; another entry which does not bring anything new to the category, unlike the works of Saadat Hasan Manto and Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay.

But where Mrs. Kulkarni’s writing shines is how well it reminded me of the works of R.K. Narayan whose fiction I have reviewed here. And it also manages to echo the almost incomparable pacing of the world’s best-selling thriller author, James Patterson.

Add to that the super-twisty and unpredictable third act, I find that my rating of 3.5 out of 5 stars is as justifiable as Rege Jai’s ethics. Fans of Agatha Christie, James Patterson and R.K. Narayan are likely to enjoy this work as much as I did.

Also, I heard that Mrs. Kulkarni is working on a sequel which will be a spin-off of the most interesting subplot mentioned in The Hawa Mahal Murders (I am eagerly anticipating it). Should THMM ever be adapted to the screen, I hope that it’s a Netflix production, and is directed by Honey Trehan who made the superb Raat Akeli Hai (2020) starring Nawazuddin Siddique (who should play either Karan Joshi or Rege Jai in my opinion).

Purchase a copy: The Hawa Mahal Murders (Amazon)


A Time for Mercy (2020) by John Grisham – Book Review

Firstly, I’d like to thank my friend Chad A. Clark, an excellent author in his own right, for recommending John Grisham’s earlier novels. I loved reading The Firm (1991). Next on the list was A Time to Kill (1989), then The Pelican Brief (1992) and out of curiosity I checked out Sycamore Row (2013) which can stated as a spiritual sequel to A Time to Kill as it features the same main character, Jake Brigance, but in this story, he is defending an African-American housemaid whose former white employer leaves behind a will declaring 90% of his estate to be transferred to this woman.

But I found Grisham’s latest work, A Time for Mercy (2020), again considered the 3rd part of the trilogy due to featuring Mr. Brigance, to be superior to the original 2 novels. Maybe it’s because times have certainly changed around the world especially since the 2010s and this applies heavily to the law both inside and outside America. So despite Grisham setting this gripping tale in the 1990s fictional Ford County, it still had a modern vibe to it, especially seeing how the case is not about race this time around, as Jake Brigance has to save a 16-year old white boy who killed an off-duty white police officer from the gas chamber via a sensational capital murder trial.

I advise all lovers of the thriller genre, especially courtroom dramas to read this novel, and to only, out of a sense of completion, approach the other two. In my opinion, the series improves after each entry making A Time for Mercy not only the best Jake Brigance book but also one of my all-time favorite John Grisham novels. I have read other 2000s novels by Grisham namely The Brethren (2000) and The Whistler (2020) but only A Time for Mercy matches his best work (published in the 90s, of course) in terms of sheer quality. This novel would also make a suitable introduction for readers to Grisham’s oeuvre.

Film Thriller

The Firm (Novel/Film) Comparison

This is probably John Grisham’s most well-known novel but it is also surprisingly not my first reading of his work. I loved reading his other novels namely The Brethren and The Whistler but it was not until my friend Chad A. Clark recommended his earlier work that I decided to give The Firm a try. Another motivation was seeing the book’s 1993 adaptation on the Netflix menu. And I am very grateful for both my friend’s recommendation and my decision to read the book first as it is the superior version.

My only gripe with the source material is that it has a painfully slow start. I know this is a legal thriller but there is so much legal jargon espoused in the starting chapters that I was desperate to see the action start. The novel really picks up when you are 20% into reading it. Then it becomes a rollercoaster of a ride. The best factor was undoubtedly the interesting characters especially Tammy for which Holly Hunter was nominated later on for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar because she embodied this intriguing character so well.

The cinematic adaptation did have a great cast. I could already picture Gene Hackman as Avery Tolar and Ed Harris as Agent Wayne Tarrance before they showed up on the screen. But if you watch the movie right after finishing the novel or vice versa, there was a lot of change to the plot especially after the halfway mark which didn’t improve on the original material at all. Also, I didn’t expect to see horror icon Tobin Bell cast as the menacing Nordic Man but he did a fantastic job.

I reckon that The Firm would’ve been better adapted as a high-budget TV miniseries. Of course I’m sure that during the 90s there was not as much investment in TV shows as of nowadays, but this novel which is quite long needed space to breathe on the screen. The Firm’s almost 2 hours 40 minutes running time just didn’t cut it; making the last half-hour feel very rushed and I was disappointed as the novel’s third act was beyond brilliant.

Again, it could be because of the director. Sydney Pollack gave more of a dramatic flair to a movie promoted as a legal thriller. Perhaps in the hands of a director known for thrillers of this type, like Joel Schumacher, the adaptation might have been almost as amazing as the source material, at least with a better ending, but of course the screenwriters are also to blame.

Overall, I enjoyed the novel but loathed the beginning sections. And I found the film adaptation to be decent yet flawed towards the end. But I still suggest you both read the novel and watch the film as the experiences are quite different yet unforgettable.