In a land that teems with death almost as thoroughly as it does with life, a slain and mutilated male prostitute usually wouldn’t garner much attention. When such a corpse turns up near the center of India’s Bollywood movie colony, however, people do take notice. As an untouchable kuli dredges the body from a lake in northern Bombay, several Film City nabobs are on hand—and so is Inspector George Sansi of the Maharashtra police force. A brown-skinned, blue-eyed wonder, with a mixed-race pedigree that makes him an ideal outsider’s insider, Sansi comes across as a figure of pure authorial fancy. He has an Indian feminist mother, a well-to-do English father, a law degree from Oxford University, a scar to prove his valor in the fight against drug-running terrorists, and now, perhaps, a hip American journalist girlfriend. It’s a marvelous set of assets, and it’s almost enough to make him fully equal to the chaotic forces that shape and warp his homeland.
Almost, but not quite.
While Mann idealizes his hero, he doesn’t stint on realism when it comes to depicting the Indian scene in all its heart-breaking, awe-inspiring disarray. His pen captures plenty of apt detail: dung fires being lit at dawn, thereby awakening a city where each life hinges precariously on the lives of many others; a gangster’s lair that resembles a glitzy, Vegas-style bachelor pad, notwithstanding its location deep inside one of the dreariest slums on Earth; the fine bone china on which Sansi and his corrupt superiors dine while conferring at the Willingdon Club, a relic of the British Raj. Less compelling are details related to the crime that Sansi is investigating, or the details of his hunt for a perpetrator. The killer’s identity, in fact, becomes clear well before the novel’s finale. The certainties of karma, rather than the mysteries of murder, take center-stage at that point, and Mann—partly by dropping peculiar hints of reincarnation—adds an Eastern inflection to the standard Western tale of how a serial killer meets his end.