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)