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Posts Tagged ‘Tamil Crime Fiction’

I got into a deep reading slump in the last couple of weeks and so to come out of it I decided to read one of my favourite writers from my early teens, Tamilvanan. The book I read was called ‘Fly With Me‘. I thought I had read it before, but the plot was new to me – it looked like I had confused it with another book.

The story told in ‘Fly With Me‘ goes like this. A mysterious rich man invites one of his young associates one day to his home. This rich man tells his associate that he wants to hire a pilot who can steal a plane from the Airforce airfield and fly it and land it in a forest at a specific location. The associate says that he knows such a pilot but that pilot is in prison right now and he’ll try to get this pilot out. So this associate gets into prison himself and escapes alongwith the pilot. Then these two gentlemen go to the Airforce airfield and the pilot gets into a specific plane and starts it. While he is getting started, a beautiful, young woman jumps into the plane, just before it starts taxiing down the runway. The plane takes off with the pilot and the unknown woman inside it. To find out what happens after that, you have to read the story 😊

I enjoyed reading ‘Fly With Me‘. The first half was fast-paced and gripping with cool, stylish characters, but somewhere in the second half, the story lost steam, and the ending was too rushed and contrived – too many things happen in the last three pages that it feels like the author wanted to complete the story in a rush. The story seems to be inspired by Ian Fleming’s James Bond novel and movie ‘Thunderball‘ and one of the characters in the story even refers to it in an indirect way. There is even a Tamil version of Blofeld in the story. He doesn’t have a cat though.

Tamilvanan was probably the first Tamil novelist that I ever read. I read my first Tamilvanan novel when I was twelve and I continued reading him till my late teens. He was probably my most favourite author for a significant part of that time. Tamilvanan mostly wrote crime fiction, murder mysteries, action thrillers and noir fiction. He started his career writing literary fiction, but soon switched to crime fiction. His arrival heralded a breath of fresh air in popular Tamil fiction. He wrote in genres which no other Tamil author had attempted before – like action thrillers and noir fiction. His heroes were handsome, dashing, chivalrous men and his heroines were beautiful, elegant, strong women. Even his villains were cool and stylish. Before his advent, Tamil crime fiction was mostly humorous and cozy, with only a few authors writing in it. Tamilvanan reinvented that genre with his gripping, page-turning, sometimes dark and gritty stories and his cool, stylish characters. I think he can be rightly called the father of modern Tamil crime fiction.

Tamilvanan’s most iconic character was a detective called Sankarlal, who was a combination of Sherlock Holmes and James Bond. When he solved murder mysteries he assumed his Sherlock Holmes persona but when he went on international adventures to exotic locales like Berlin, Paris, Hong Kong and Geneva (exotic locales for Tamil readers), to solve international mysteries and catch the bad guys, he assumed his James Bond persona, frequently being involved in car chases and boat chases with typically a beautiful, kick-ass woman accompanying him. At the peak of his popularity, Tamilvanan couldn’t resist a narcissistic streak and introduced a new detective who was a fictional version of himself, had the same name as himself, and who sported a hat and dark sun glasses as the author himself. This new detective was a loner. He was not married or have any family or friends like Sankarlal, he didn’t drink tea or coffee but drank only fruit juice, he lived alone in a big house, and he solved mysteries. Though readers missed the handsome Sankarlal and his family of charming, eccentric characters, they were not complaining. The stories of this new detective were equally gripping and readers loved him.

One of the things that I loved about Tamilvanan was his prose. His prose was spare with short sentences, and he wrote in pure Tamil which was a pleasure to read. Even the conversations in his stories were written in this style, and they had nothing in common with the casual language in which people have conversations in the real world. This made the conversations in the stories so pleasurable to read. Most Tamil writers would use commonly used English words in their stories, but Tamilvanan refused to use even words like tea and coffee and juice in his stories, but used their Tamil equivalents. When I first read his books, I didn’t know the meanings of some of these words, because no one used them in everyday life, and I had to ask my mom what they meant. I still remember encountering the Tamil words for ‘juice’ and ‘file’ for the first time in his books. The characters in his stories also had pure Tamil names, inspired by names from classical Tamil literature, names which were beautiful and always had a meaning attached to them, the kind of names which parents don’t give their kids. His women characters had some of the most beautiful names that I had encountered in Tamil fiction.

Another thing that I loved about Tamilvanan’s stories was the way he reimagined Chennai. His Chennai was not the Chennai of the real world, in which people got up early in the morning and went to sleep early at night and life was simple and nice and boring. Tamilvanan’s Chennai was exciting – in the city depicted in the pages of his books, there were car chases and bike chases, boxing matches and horse races, there were night clubs which had beautiful dancers who had a gun inside their purse, and there were mysterious, powerful men living in dark bungalows in the middle of the city who plotted big crimes. It was a mythical Chennai which was present only in the pages of his books. Readers loved it. Many of them believed that it actually existed. Some of them went in search of these exotic places described in the book. Some of these places were present in the real Chennai, like the racecourse, but others were present only in the pages of his books, like boxing rings and night clubs filled with beautiful dancers. Tamilvanan’s mythical Chennai was a glorious reimagining of this beautiful city, where the imaginary version was more exciting than the real one.

In addition to crime fiction, Tamilvanan also wrote nonfiction. Most of his nonfiction was written for a young audience. He wrote inspiring essays dispensing advice to young people and also wrote books on fitness, health, martial arts, learning new languages and even the occasional biography. His book on Tamil hero Kattabomman was against the grain and controversial and his portrayal of Kattabomman was not at all flattering. Tamilvanan even wrote a sex manual which was popular among young men and women. It was unique in Tamil because it was the first time anyone had written a sex manual in Tamil – Tamil writers shy away from this topic – and it was a pure one-off because no one has written a sex manual in Tamil since. Unfortunately, it is out-of-print now.

By the time he passed away in the late ’70s, when he was in his middle fifties, Tamilvanan was probably the most popular writer in Tamil – he published his own magazine which serialized his stories and essays and he had his own publishing company which published his books. He was like a one-man army. He had inspired a whole generation of young people to become more confident, to read more, to acquire more knowledge, to appreciate and enjoy the beauty of their language, to have an international outlook. There had never been anyone like him before. There has been no one like him since.

Tamilvanan’s sons kept the flame burning and carried forward the family business after him. One of them handled the editorial responsibilities of the magazine he founded and wrote columns in it himself. The second son took care of the publishing company. The writer / editor son tried reviving Tamilvanan’s most famous fictional character Sankarlal and wrote a novel featuring him. It achieved modest success, but not at the same level as his dad’s books. Soon, this son gave up fiction writing and decided to focus on the columns that he wrote in the magazine dispensing inspiration and advice to young people. These columns became famous and the son became a famous writer in his own right. The son also delivered talks on topics which he addressed in his columns and he became famous as an inspiring public speaker who spoke in colleges and universities and on TV channels and who was admired by a young audience. At some point, the fame of the son eclipsed that of his dad and young readers started associating the Tamilvanan name with the son.

Tamilvanan’s novels led to an explosion of the crime fiction genre in Tamil. Many aspiring writers started writing crime fiction including crime fiction legend Rajesh Kumar, who became one of the most prolific writers in the world. It led to new monthly magazines which were exclusively dedicated to crime fiction and some of them were dedicated to just one author. One of these magazines paid homage to Tamilvanan by introducing an annual special issue which carried a Tamilvanan novel, which introduced Tamilvanan’s fiction to a whole new generation of readers. Unfortunately, the genres of action thrillers and noir fiction in Tamil died with Tamilvanan’s passing. Tamil writers were more comfortable writing about the things they knew and they didn’t like doing research and so there was no question of setting an action thriller in a ship or a plane or an exotic foreign locale. Tamil readers mostly like their crime fiction in black-and-white featuring good guys and the bad guys, with the good guys winning in the end, and a noir fiction novel in which everyone looked bad or there were shades of grey made readers uncomfortable. It was amazing that Tamilvanan ignored this and went ahead and wrote noir novels and encouraged readers to step out of their comfort zone. But later novelists decided to play it safe and avoided noir fiction because they didn’t want to antagonize the readers and noir fiction died a quiet death.

When I first moved to Chennai, one of the first things I did was to visit Tamilvanan’s publishing company, Manimekalai Prasuram. I was like a devotee on a pilgrimage visiting a temple for the first time. The office of the publisher was present in a modest building which looked like a house. It was so hard to believe that this was the place which brought out magazines and books which inspired millions of young people. Well, great things happen from modest places. It gave me goosebumps.

In recent years, the publishers decided to revive Tamilvanan’s fictional work and introduce it to a new generation of readers. They brought out beautiful, hardback, omnibus editions of his most famous novels. I went and got some of them at the book fair. It was nice to read them again and experience again the joy I experienced during my teens.

Have you read any of Tamilvanan’s books? What do you think about them?

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I have been eagerly looking forward to October, because it is Diverse Detectives Month hosted by Bina from If You Can Read This and Silicon from Silicon of the Internet. The phrase ‘Diverse Detectives’ is used in the sense that the detective in question is not a regular detective like Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple, but someone who is a person of colour (African, African-American, Chinese, Japanese, East Asian, Latin American, Persian, Arab, Native American, Indian etc.) or / and someone who is gay or who has a fluid sexual orientation, or LGBTQIA+ as the current acronym for that goes. I think it is easier to find the first kind of detective. It is hard to find the second kind. I will look forward to finding out what books other participants read especially with respect to the second kind of detective. I remember Pierce Brosnan saying sometime back that it was time for a black Bond, it was time for a gay Bond. I don’t know whether Bond will ever become black and / or gay, but I can definitely say that diverse detectives have arrived, if you look at the suggested reading list for the event.

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One of the fun parts of participating in a reading event is making reading plans. I always love making reading plans. Whether I stick to the plan or not is another matter πŸ˜‚ I had a lot of fun making plans for this event. When my constantly evolving reading list finally took shape, I was so excited. Here it is. I am hoping to read some of these books over the next month. I divided the list into three parts as you can see.

In English

(1) The Walter Mosley Omnibus, comprising, Devil in a Blue Dress, A Red Death and White Butterfly

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I got this book years back at an Indian version of the Parisian bouqiniste, or a platform bookshop, as we affectionately call it here. I had heard of Walter Mosley a few days back and as such things happen, a few days later the book leapt at me when I was browsing. The blue, red and white in the titles makes me think of the French national flag and its meaning and the Colours trilogy directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski. I don’t know whether Walter Mosley was trying to say something there. I loved the fact that these three colours are featured in the cover – I am sure that was intentional. I read the first few lines of the book and I am thinking that Walter Mosley might be the African-American Raymond Chandler and his detective Easy Rawlings might be the African-American Philip Marlowe. I will know when I finish reading the book.

(2) The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

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I have wanted to read this book for years. Can you believe that I haven’t read a single Alexander McCall Smith book? Time to remedy that. Can’t wait to read about the adventures of Precious Ramotswe, Botswana’s finest detective.

(3) The Coroner’s Lunch by Colin Cotterill

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One of my favourite friends gifted this book to me a while back and I have wanted to read it since. It features the seventy two year old coroner Dr.Siri Paiboun and is set in Laos. It promises to be a lot of fun.

(4) Blanche on the Lam by Barbara Neely

I first discovered this book through Eva from The Charm of It. And before I knew it, I started spotting it everywhere, like in the Diverse Detectives reading recommendations and Bina’s TBR list. It features the detective adventures of Blanche, who is a plump, fiesty, African-American housekeeper – how can one resist that.

In Translation

(5) Four Short Stories by Jorge Luis BorgesDeath and the Compass, TlΓΆn, Uqbar and Orbis Tertius, The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim, A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quaint

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I have read just one story of Borges before. I have read that he was a master at taking a traditional detective story and turning it on its head. ‘Death and the Compass‘ is supposed to be the most famous of his ‘detective’ stories. I can’t wait to read that one and the others.

(6) Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong

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I have had this book for years, since my Chinese days. I have never read a detective mystery set in China and so am very excited.

(7) Three Byomkesh Bakshi books (Picture Imperfect, The Menagerie, The Rhythm of Riddles) by Saradindu Bandyopadhyay

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These stories featuring the Indian detective Byomkesh Bakshi first appeared in the 1930s, and were originally written in Bengali. They are quite famous in IndiaΒ  and have been adapted for TV. My Bengali friends rave about them and I can’t wait to read them.

(8) The Complete Adventures of Feluda by Satyajit Ray

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Satyajit Ray is one of India’s greatest filmmakers. But like many other artists, he was a man of many talents, and one of them was writing mysteries featuring the detective Feluda. The original stories were written in Bengali and first appeared in the 1960s and have delighted generations of Bengali readers, young and old alike. The collected Feluda stories come to around 1600 pages and I wouldn’t be able to read them all in one go. Hopefully I will be able to read some of them.

Not Available in Translation

Time to look at some of the books in my language, Tamil πŸ™‚

(9) Manimozhi, Forget Me by Tamilvanan

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I read my first Tamilvanan book when I was in my preteens and promptly fell in love with his works. Tamilvanan was probably the greatest detective mystery / crime fiction writer in Tamil in the twentieth century. He wrote from the ’50s to the late ’70s. He started his career writing literary fiction, but after a not-very-impressive start he shifted to crime fiction. (I don’t know why he didn’t hit it off as a literary fiction writer, because I have read his literary fiction and it is pretty good.) One of the fascinating things about Tamilvanan was his prose. He wrote Tamil which didn’t have the slant of any regional dialect. It didn’t have any English words. It wasn’t the way anyone spoke. It was the ideal version of Tamil, somewhat like the ideal version of the Queen’s English or the Parisian French. It was an absolute pleasure to read. I remember spending many an hour of my teen years taking in the delightful pleasures of Tamilvanan’s prose. Tamilvanan wrote books which spanned the complete range of crime fiction – detective mysteries, noir crime and every other genre in between. Half of his stories featured two detectives and the other half were standalone crime novels. His main detective was called Shankarlal. He was a combination of Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and James Bond – sometimes he would go to the crime scene and collect evidence and look for clues like Holmes did, at other times he would call everyone and sit inside a house and run thought experiments and solve the mystery like Poirot did and at other times he would be travelling to exotic locales and would be speeding away on boats with a damsel-in-distress in tow with the villains chasing them. When I think about it now, it all seems illogical and unbelievable, but when I read these books, I loved all the different facets of this detective hero. Tamilvanan was the inspiration for all the detective mystery / crime writers in Tamil who followed him. I don’t know how many books he wrote, but I think I have around a hundred of his books, all stocked up for a rainy day. Most of his books went out of print, and I got some of the last copies available. These days, his publishers are trying to bring some of his famous works back into print, which is great. ‘Manimozhi, Forget Me‘ is a crime novel. A father one day calls his twenty-something daughter and tells her that he is not the good guy she thinks he is, and bad guys are going to kill him, and he asks her to leave town. What he is, really, and what happens to the daughter forms the rest of the story. I read it the first time years back and it was gripping and page-turning like the best detective/ crime fiction is and I loved it. I can’t wait to read it again.

(10) The Sea Mystery by Tamilvanan

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My english translation of the title doesn’t really say anything about the story. I still remember the first scene – a man hires a boat in the night to take him to a ship, which is at the outer anchorage. While the boat is waiting quietly this man boards the ship. Ten minutes later he comes running across the ship’s deck being chased by gunmen, jumps from the ship onto the waiting boat and the boat speeds off to safety. It was a scene straight from a Bond movie. I loved it when I first read it. I can’t remember much of the story now except for that first scene. I hope to read it again and rediscover it.

(11) Detective Sambu by Devan

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Devan was the Tamil Dickens. He wrote books about everyday middle class people, his descriptions of life were realistic and authentic and his stories were told with lots of humour. This is one of his famous works. Sambu is a clerk in a bank. He is forty years old. His boss calls him an idiot – in the sense, when his boss wants to speak to him, he tells his secretary – ‘Call that idiot.’ Sambu is frustrated with his life and his career, when one day surprising things happen. How this clerk becomes a detective – I can’t wait to find that.

(12) The Murderous Autumn by Sujatha

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Sujatha was one of the great Tamil literary masters. His fans called him ‘Vaathiyaar‘ – an affectionate way of saying ‘Teacher‘. Detective mystery was one of the genres he wrote in. He also wrote literary fiction, feminist fiction, historical fiction, short stories, plays, nonfiction books on science for the general reader, literary essays, translation of ancient Tamil epics into modern Tamil and all kinds of things in between. He even wrote screenplays for movies. He was a true allrounder. His detective mysteries mostly featured the lawyer duo of Ganesh and Vasanth. They were probably modelled after Perry Mason. This is their most famous story. My translation of the title is not perfect – the original title ‘Kolaiyudhir Kaalam‘ can be more accurately translated to ‘The season in which people are murdered and drop dead like leaves during Autumn‘. I don’t know how to shorten that into a few words. I read this book years back and I remember it being a combination of murder mystery, paranormal, science and an unexpected ending. I can’t wait to read it again.

So, this is my reading list for Diverse Detectives Month. Are you participating? Which books are you planning to read?

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