India, confined to a mere subcontinent of space, famously contains enough life to fill several continents with an ample supply of beauty, sordor, and intrigue. The temptation to duplicate that quality of excess in literary form has afflicted countless writers from the West, including the author of this hyper-intelligent thriller. Here are some of the elements that swirl about in Forbes’s veritable monsoon of a novel: the history of alchemy, sibling rivalry, the cinematic achievements and social vicissitudes of Bollywood (India’s answer to Hollywood), colonialism, the culture of the hijra (the pre- and post-op eunuch prostitutes who haunt and enliven the streets of Bombay), suicide, the practice and lore of gilding, Indian nationalist politics, biracial mating and its offspring, the films of Alfred Hitchcock, the smuggling of antiquities, the craft of art forgery, meteorology, high technology, the deadly allure of water, the dispensability of wives, and Shakespeare’s The Tempest (which one character, an Indian version of Orson Welles, has worked for decades to bring to the Bollywood screen).
Rosalind Benegal—sired by a polymathic philanderer from Kerala, borne of a self-destructive Scottish mother, named after a hearty Shakespearean heroine—returns to the India of her anguished youth. There, she soon discovers, signs and rumors abound to suggest that someone intends to kill her estranged half-sister. A journalist by trade and a seeker of truth by neurotic inclination, Rosalind delves further and further into a maelstrom of human desperation and omnipresent deceit. Bombay, through her eyes, becomes a landscape of cheapened lives and richly imagined schemes. Yet the abundance of mirrors and baubles that grace the surface of this narrative keeps the story from functioning well at a deep level. Bombay Ice features superb writing and generous erudition, but it culminates in a confusing, inconsequential finale. Rosalind, who narrates the book, notes at one point that Indian music has nothing like the self-contained structure of Western music. Forbes errs in giving this novel a similar quality: What works in a raga fails to serve the needs of a detective tale.