I wanted to review books as a way of pushing myself out of the comfort zone and out into the amazing world of unknown books. Tom Vater approached me for an honest review of Kolkata Noir and I happily accepted. I am glad I did as this novel is very different from my usual reading habits. It may be different to my usual choices, but I greatly enjoyed it.
The novel’s name is perfect. It is set in a city called variously Calcutta, Kolkata and Killkata and combines the steamy atmosphere of West Bengal with the clipped, dark pessimism of noir literature. It is a heady combination.
The book is divided into three sections. The first is called Calcutta and is set in 1999. An English traveller, Becker, meets a newly created police inspector, Madhurima, and the two characters find themselves working together to solve a seedy plot involving the Indian upper classes and a British interloper. I love the way the noir themes of money and corruption intertwine with the feverish heat of Bengal. There is tension between the two characters but they are pulled apart by their separate life paths.
The second section is called Kolkata and is set in 2019. It’s the same city (the name changed in 2001) and once again Becker and Madhurima meet to solve a problem. This time it is British incomers inciting trouble among the dispossessed and lost of the Kolkata slums and rubbish heaps. Once again the tension is felt between the two characters as they work together to solve the deaths and destruction caused by the hunt for the fabled Mother Teresa’s treasure. Once again the characters are pulled apart by their life paths.
The third and final section is called Killkata as the city once again changes her name and is set in 2039. The city is drowning as global warming raises the sea levels. Corruption and lawlessness now rule instead of any government and the people left behind struggle frantically for survival. Madhurima reaches out to her old contact, Becker, in a desperate attempt to help someone she loves and he, of course, responds. This is by far the darkest section as the two companions struggle through the shadows as the world is falling around them.
There are two distinct strands to the book. One is the dark shadows of the noir genre. There are the seedy secrets, the grotesque underclass, the morally bankrupt high society and the dark deals that define noir. The contrast between the fantastically rich and the desperately poor is well drawn and stark. People make difficult decisions in impossible circumstances and the intangible link between Becker and Madhurima is very much part of the noir tradition. People make difficult choices, heroic decisions and unlucky calls. The stories are full of shadows that grow darker as the book progresses. As ever, there is a glimmer of hope in the end as people make hard choices and still decide to do the right thing regardless of personal cost.
The other strand is the city itself. Tom Vater talks so eloquently about the Indian culture and the relics of British rule. You can almost feel the sultry air as he shows the city and her former riches. I admit that there were times when I had to turn to the internet to understand some of the references, but for me that was a plus as it broadened my knowledge. The constant intrusion of the old British Raj still pushing into current Indian life is a recurring theme. History is still casting shadows.
Quibbles – the three sections are quite short. I personally think that each could have been expanded. There could have been more about the characters and further depth as the stories were expanded. I suspect that I am just being greedy. The book works. I just wanted more.
You can find Kolkata Noir by Tom Vater as an ebook, audio book, hardback or paperback at Amazon.co.uk.