I have never been to Kolkata (the city previously known as Calcutta). I have never been to India. Tom Vater, author of Kolkata Noir, has, however. But having read this excellent book, I feel as though I have visited the city; I feel like I’ve seen the sights; I feel like I’ve met all the people living there (or at the very least, all the people featured in this book). But I haven’t — everything I have seen is through Vater’s eyes, or more accurately, through his words. And what a magnificent place it is. Throughout this book, it is evident that Vater not only has knowledge and understanding of the city, but also a deep love for it. And that love is infectious.
Kolkata Noir is a crime noir story told through three novellas. Each of these novellas tells their own distinct tale while contributing to the larger tapestry, as they tell the story of an English Investigator in Kolkata, Becker, and Inspectress Madhurima Mitra. Each of these novellas takes place twenty years apart, as the characters reconnect, gradually expanding the world. The first novella, 1999 – Calcutta, (set a couple of years prior to the city’s renaming) is a typical murder mystery, where the book’s protagonists investigate the murder of a business person. The second, 2019 – Kolkata, tells the tale of Becker returning to the now Kolkata on behalf of a man wanting him to retrieve his sons. The book’s final novella, 2039 – Killkata, is the highest concept tale of the piece: Becker once again returns to Kolkata (now ‘Killkata’) at the behest of Madhurima’s daughter to assist her in leaving the city which is now largely underwater (see people, this is why we need to take climate change seriously!).
Through each of these stories, Vater presents a diverse and disparate Calcutta/Kolkata/Killkata, focusing on the different religious groups, hostility between the English and Indian populations, the city’s richest and the city’s poorest communities. As Vater tells the third part, these themes become more speculative, however, these are expertly taken from the city’s vast history.
At 148 pages in paperback, 150 pages in hardcover, and an estimated 208 swipes on your favourite eReader, Kolkata Noir is anything but a lengthy read. When picking up the book, I had only intended to read part one, then return to it later, for parts two and three. However, I found myself loving Calcutta so much that I continued through to Kolkata, and then Killkata. I’m thankful the book was of the length it was, so I didn’t spend my entire day reading. Yes, I could have stopped at any point, but Kolkata Noir is a gripping read. And while each part stands alone, with their ends being perfect breaking points, I found myself unable to put it down.
Throughout the book, Vater’s prose is nothing short of outstanding. The writing consists of short, sharp sentences, which flow together beautifully, while keeping a consistent pace. While I wouldn’t call the pace “fast,” it definitely doesn’t grind to a halt, nor does it feel remotely slow. The pace is perfect for the stories being told. These are crime stories, after all. Vater takes the time to give the reader all the necessary information without boring them with innate details. While the book is not long, each novella feels like the perfect length, particularly given the author’s skill at succinct storytelling, packing a lot into the pages.
One of the true highlights of Kolkata Noir is the characterisation, particularly between Becker and Madhurima. This book is very much a series of noirish crime stories, and if you are simply not a fan of crime nor noir, you’ll have a tough time with it. If you’re a fan of the genres, you’ll absolutely love it. If you sit somewhere in the middle, there’s a lot to enjoy in the plotting, which is incredibly tight. But the two protagonists and their interactions, along with the world they inhabit including the supporting cast, is magnificent—and could just be that extra ingredient you’re looking for.
Prior to being offered Kolkata Noir for review, I had never heard of its author, Tom Vater. Whenever I am offered a book to review, I research it, as well as the author. My research has brought up the diversity of Vater’s work, which includes an additional four novels, input into an anthology, three non-fiction books, the words for three photo books, four guidebooks, and a documentary, as well as journalism for a variety of outlets. It’s quite an extensive CV, with most of it focused on Asia. Given the love and care that went into Kolkata Noir along with Vater’s skilled writing, I have become an instant fan of his work, and am looking forward to reading his other works.
As I mentioned above, if you have a distaste for crime stories and noir, Kolkata Noir won’t convince you otherwise, and you would be best to leave the book be. But for everybody else, the book is nothing short of a shining example of its genres that thrusts you into the world. It truly is a revelation.
“Just one more question,” the police woman added. “Do you love him? Or is this just a fling as a result of an unhappy marriage?”
Paulami tried to look irritated. “That’s a very personal question, Miss…?”
“It’s Mitra. And murder is often a very personal business.”
“Yes, I do really like him. He is a great deal more pleasant than my late husband. That sounds callous. But you should have been there, day in and day out.”Kolkata Noir, Part One: 1999 – Calcutta
Kolkata Noir was provided by the author’s representative for the purpose of an honest review.
Kolkata Noir is available in both physical (paperback and hardcover) and eBook formats, from book retailers (including—but not limited to—Amazon).
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