“Banquet on the Dead” a book by Sharath Komarraju

Here are three things I must lay out before starting to review Sharath Komarraju’s latest murder mystery Banquet on the Dead.

  1. Writing is a continuous learning curve – there are some features of great writing that many otherwise-talented authors do not exhibit in their first few published books
  2. Gratuitous violence, gore or sex is often a sign of a poorly constructed narrative and can usually be explained as an attempt to hide deficiencies.
  3. There is currently a high proportion of ‘Sherlock Holmes’ knockoff characters in crime dramas – incredibly intelligent yet arrogant and quite inconsiderate. This is perhaps a side effect of exaggerating the original Holmes persona for the modern day and is exemplified in Hugh Laurie’s “House”, Robert Downey Junior’s “Sherlock”, Tim Roth’s “Cal Lightman” (Lie to Me) and Simon Baker’s “Patrick Jane” (The Mentalist) to name a few. While this technique initially resulted in characters that seemed more memorable and gave them a greater sense of depth, this wide usage has resulted in a kind of homogeneity and reversed, to some extent, the initial effect.

These are three premises I shall assume in this review – they seem quite uncontentious but if you find you are in disagreement with them then you may stop reading now, or you could settle in and prepare to loathe everything from now on. Either choice would be a shame from my perspective but without the freedom to stop reading or disagree, gossip magazines would be a far more insidious presence in our modern world.

The premises I have laid out may suggest a particular view of Sharath Komarraju’s Banquet on the Dead and so I will begin by saying that what is immediately obvious throughout the book is confidence.

This is where premise one comes into play – many newly published authors exhibit a wide range of commendable attributes but are still quite obvious as a narrator. Reading the book is enjoyable but never as truly absorbing as it could be because the writer doesn’t have the confidence necessary to truly fade into the background.  It has often been said (outside of modernist and postmodernist works) that the work of the writer is to create a story that doesn’t seem ‘written’ and this is something Komarraju accomplishes well throughout the book.

In addition to this success, Komarraju avoids two of what I see as the major pitfalls of modern crime stories. The first of these relates to my second premise  – many murder stories resort to graphic descriptions of the body and crime scene in the attempt to increase the vividity of the tale or introduce importance or grit to the investigation. Some may prefer this style of storytelling, however, overly explicit descriptions of any kind are often a sign of the inability to produce the same effect in a subtler manner and here the writer manages to include depth and grit without such clumsy devices.

The second avoided pitfall relates to premise number three – Komarraju’s mastermind is named Hamid Pasha and is by far one of the better re-imaginings of Conan Doyle’s most famous character. He retains Holmes’ understated, razor sharp intelligence and preserves his calm polite sensibility without including any of the brazen, childish, admittedly entertaining superiority that is so common in other incarnations.

Komarraju also refrains from including needlessly complex backstories and specialities, another common feature of modern crime series. Hamid Pasha is not a maths genius sequestered by the local police department, a gardening expert that happens to stumble across a fresh crime or a psychic that reads the minds of unholstery to gain glimpses into the minds of killers. Hamid Pasha is a man that has gained a reputation for solving crimes – he is a twist on the great detective that keeps his essence without overcomplicating it.

Unfortunately, where this simplicity is a strength in the novel’s basic scaffolding, it introduces problems in more superficial aspects. There are times where Hamid Pasha directs the investigation and follows leads in a manner that seems a little incongruous with his status as someone in an informal consultants role. His involvement in the investigation also seems to disregard, to a certain extent, any ‘fruit from the poisoned tree’ rulings which prevent those with criminal pasts handling evidence in ongoing investigations. These issues, however, have minimal impact on enjoyment of the story and Komarraju crafts the mystery well – a fact that would count for nothing if it was not so well explained by his Hamid Pasha.

“Banquet on the Dead” is an absorbing, enjoyable and finely tuned puzzle. In this, his second book, Komarraju avoids much of the gratuity and formula of many murder mysteries and has the maturity to retain the aspects of the genre that are worth keeping. You can find Sharath Komarraju at http://sharathkomarraju.com/ or his first book under the title of “Murder in Amaravati”.

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