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From Barnes & NobleBarnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
The alchemical wedding of genres known as the "literary thriller" is more often than not a marriage of convenience — an ill-suited match that rarely survives the sober realization that neither party has much in common with the other. The basic elements of the thriller — intricate plotting, page-turning prose, and nonstop action — are not always compatible with more subtle literary devices such as multilevel exposition and depth of characterization. Self-examination, ancillary story lines, and "unnecessary" local color are seen as diversions that hinder, rather than enhance, the pace and direction of the novel. Only after a devoted readership has been established — the third or fourth book in a bestselling series, perhaps — is such artistic license likely to be accepted.
Happily, in any given year, a number of exceptions to this rule present themselves — most recently Iain Pears's An Instance of the Fingerpost and Robert Stone's incomparable Damascus Gate. Now Leslie Forbes joins this distinguished company with her dazzling fiction debut. Bombay Ice is a true literary thriller that is at once a far-reaching meditation on the nature of chaos and an intriguing whodunit that scuds along with cyclonic velocity and force.
Rosalind Bengal is a 33-year-old radio producer for the BBC, a "professional vampire" whose job it is to insinuate herself into others' lives and suck out their life stories.Belyingher Anglo-Indian heritage, she is tall, broad-shouldered, black-haired, and light-skinned — an imposing figure who, in her own assessment, embodies the panache of the early Kate Hepburn. (In a cruel parting shot, her last lover less generously compared her appearance to that of the late Elvis.) Twenty years after leaving India upon the shipwreck of her parents' tempestuous relationship, Roz finds herself lured back to her childhood home by a cryptic letter she receives from her half sister, Miranda. "My husband is making an Indian version of Shakespeare's Tempest. People tell me he murdered his first wife.... I am being followed by eunuchs and lepers." Roz convinces the BBC to pick up the tab for her family reunion by promising her cynical editor a feature story about corruption in Bombay's film world, complete with "machetes, cobra bites, [and] ritual murder" — a glib sales pitch she will later regret.
Roz arrives in Bombay just ahead of the gathering monsoons that will shortly inaugurate the four-month season of Caturmasa, and within hours she is given the chance to deliver on the ritual murder angle of her assignment. The grotesquely mutilated body of Sami, one of Bombay's hijras (transvestite eunuchs), has just been found on Chowpatty Beach — the fourth such discovery in the past two months — and someone has taken great pains (pun intended) to arrange a tableau nonvivant that suggests a political connection between the murders and the extremist Shiv Sena political party. Realizing that she is in over her head, Roz wastes no time in seeking out a Virgil to the Bombay underworld, her former BBC colleague Ram Shantra. Now a freelance video editor and computer specialist, Ram has developed a network of bribable officials that extends throughout a range of bloated bureaucracies, from "Bollywood" film studios to the coroner's office. By means of a judicious distribution of rupees, Roz uncovers a link between the Chowpatty martyrs and Miranda's husband, the acclaimed film director Prosper Sharma: Not only was Sami present at the suicide of Prosper's first wife, Maya ("a bitchy prima donna on the skids") but he was also a skilled artist who kept a detailed record of every forgery he created for Prosper's personal collection. Scrawled in the margins of a rare book of Indian art, this damning information — if made public — would ruin Prosper and destroy his hope of completing his cinematic masterpiece.
And there's the rub — while Prosper and his unsavory cartel of bent gentry and oleaginous power brokers search desperately for Sami's missing manifest, darker, uncontrollable forces are gathering against them like the coming monsoon. Like some vengeful Caliban, Prosper's former protégé and now bitter rival, Caleb Mistry, is also anxiously hunting for the incriminating book, and his badmash goondas (Bombay mafiosi) will stop at nothing to find it first.
With a threatening tempest, a cross-dressing Rosalind, a wizardly Prosper, and a naive Miranda, it is clear that Forbes is not dishing out standard thriller fare. And yet this cross-cultural masala should appeal to nearly anyone with a palate for new and exciting tastes. In addition to her encyclopedic explorations of Bombay's history, the intricacies of Indian politics, and the social order of hijra communities, Forbes can't resist contributing fascinating digressions on a vast number of seemingly unrelated phenomena: meteorological arcana, chemical transmutations, the art of lost-wax sculpting, life lessons drawn from the mating habits of toxic amphibians, the poetry of Ovid, Eliot, and Auden, the films of Francis Ford Coppola and Orson Welles, the importance of one-hour photo processing — all are tossed off with gleeful polymathic authority. Even more impressively, everyone — from Shakespeare-quoting taxi driver to skateboarding leper — and everything is integral to the denouement. This imposition of order upon chaos is an astonishing effort. Indeed, were any complaint to be made against such daunting erudition, it would be that Forbes's penchant for neatness verges on the obsessive.
Bombay Ice is a brilliant evocation of modern India and its intricate social and political hierarchies — high praise in a year that has already seen the publication of several notable "Indian" novels (among them Kiran Desai's charming Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard and Sanjay Nigam's The Snake Charmer). Leslie Forbes writes with an assurance and élan that will be the envy of many a more established author; Bombay Ice is a remarkable debut.