A Will to Kill by R.V. Raman

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Review by Max Dunbar

Slayer Rules: R V Raman’s A Will to Kill

Mysteries are hard to write, and hard to review. Because of the taboo on ‘spoilers’ you can’t reveal the mechanics of the story, so the reviewer must fall back on general stuff like ‘twisty’, ‘tense,’ ‘suspenseful,’ which makes any critique sound like a cover blurb. It’s even hard to tell a genuinely mysterious mystery from a more average one, because there’s always a different way to read mysteries. Some readers will be astonished at every turn in the story because they surrender completely to the author’s will. Others will know the tricks of storytelling and try to second guess the author: this kind of reader ‘pits his mind against that of the detective and proceeds to do mental battle.’

This quote is from S S Van Dine’s 1928 article ‘Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories’ which I found on an Agatha Christie fan wiki. There seem to be a lot of rules for writing mysteries, some very much of their time:

Servants – such as butlers, footmen, valets, game-keepers, cooks, and the like – must not be chosen by the author as the culprit… It is a too easy solution…. The culprit must be a decidedly worth-while person – one that wouldn’t ordinarily come under suspicion; for if the crime was the sordid work of a menial, the author would have had no business to embalm it in book-form.

and others that are simply bizarre (‘A really fascinating crime is one committed by a pillar of a church, or a spinster noted for her charities.’)

Would S S Dine approve of A Will to Kill? Perhaps. It’s a compact, but absorbing, and truly unguessable mystery – at least to me it was. Eccentric millionaire Bhaskar Fernandez is convinced that someone close to him is going to murder him. The signs are ominous: attempted burglaries, reptiles left in the bedsheets, and car accidents of dubious origin. Bhaskar figures the culprit will be someone who stands to gain from his death. The obvious motive is inheritance – Bhaskar’s will includes many generous bequests and he suspects that relatives may seek to hasten his demise. So Bhaskar writes a second will, a secret will, which takes effect if he dies by unnatural means. As a final precaution he hires our protagonist Harith Athreya to investigate in the event that Bhaskar actually is murdered. 

Obviously this all takes place in a remote country mansion somewhere in the mountains of Nilgiri. Shortly after Athreya’s arrival, a fog descends on the area, and there’s a landslide that blocks the road out of town. Bhaskar’s family are all gathered for an occasion – his immediate relatives plus friends who also stand to gain from the will. Under these circumstances you would be disappointed if there wasn’t a murder. However the victim isn’t Bhaskar himself, but his friend Philip, a local artist who painted many of the landscapes in Bhaskar’s gallery. 

The feel of this novel is golden-age detective fiction – perhaps somewhere between the late nineteenth century and S S Dine’s 1920s. When Athreya uses text messages or WhatsApp, it jars, but the technology doesn’t create the plot problems of which it’s capable in mysteries. There is a reckoning of sorts with the British Empire: on the train, a ex wing commander tells Athreya that Bhaskar’s house ‘was built by the Brits at the cost of how many native Indian lives, I don’t know… an English bugger built it, but he didn’t enjoy it for more than a year. Lost his footing one misty night and fell into a ravine. Broke his neck.’ The old airman goes on to tell Athreya that ‘Every English blighter who owned it thereafter – there were three or four of them, I think – fell prey to something or the other, and the mansion began acquiring a reputation.’ At a family meal, Bhaskar’s niece claims that one of the Englishmen ‘was reputed to have been a devil worshipper…. His chopped-up body was scattered along the length of the valley, and not all of it was found. Because of that, they say, his spirit is unable to be at peace.’

But in a sense A Will to Kill is a postmodern novel about art and representation. Philip the artist, brilliant as he is, considers himself a failure because as Bhaskar says ‘he has very little imagination for an artist… His fingers, however, weave magic on the canvas.’ The artworks Philip creates for Bhaskar are entirely ‘of scenery or people, none are abstract or from his own imagination.’ Athreya himself is a habitual sketcher of landscapes – apart from investigation, it appears to be his only hobby. The text itself is broken up by family trees, maps, floor plans – most look like they have been hand drawn, rather than Cluedo-style diagrams. R V Raman’s mysteries have been compared to Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle, but in his spare prose there is a lot more going on here than the average detective novel.

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Max blogs at maxdunbar.wordpress.com and tweets as @MaxDunbar1.

R V Raman, A Will to Kill, (Pushkin Vertigo, 2021). 978-1782277323, 272pp., paperback original..

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