This is a book which comes with a lot of expectations. It is said to be ‘perfect for fans of Golden Age crime, Knives Out and Lucy Foley,’ whilst the Telegraph India asserts that ‘the influence of Agatha Christie and John Dickson Carr on the narrative is compelling.’ Meanwhile the New York Times describes it as ‘a modern-day take on the classic locked-room murder mystery’ and the endorsement section inside the book bandies Christie’s name more than once. She’s evoked, she’s channelled… Reflecting on these comments my main takeaway was “Wow this book has an awful lot to live up to!”
Keep reading to see whether I think it does…
Ageing millionaire Bhaskar Fernandez has invited his relatives to the remote, and possibly haunted, Greybrooke Manor, high up in the misty Nilgiris.
He knows his guests expect to gain from his death, so he writes two conflicting wills. Which one of them comes into force will depend on how he dies.
Fernandez also invites Harith Athreya, a seasoned investigator, to watch what unfolds. When a landslide leaves the estate temporarily isolated, and a body is discovered, Athreya finds that death is not the only thing that the mist conceals. . .’
Whilst I would not go as far as Rhys Bowen who says this novel is ‘like stepping back into the Golden Age of the classic mystery,’ I would suggest that Raman certainly adopts a traditional mystery structure in the Georgette Heyer mould, including some well-established tropes. Of all the classic crime writers Raman could be compared to, Heyer seems, to me, to be the more apt suggestion. With these tropes Raman creates some cultural variation, which I think is one of the strengths of the mystery.
Firstly, we have the sumptuous country house which gets cut off by bad weather. In a British classic crime novel, snow would be the most likely culprit, but I enjoyed how the writer uses a landslide instead. To a British reader this seems more unusual. Secondly, there is the archetypal wealthy patriarch who fears his relatives may be trying to murder him and in Heyer’s mystery fiction wealthy patriarchs are definitely an unhealthy role to be in. Raman’s patriarch is Bhaskar Fernandez and initially he has tried to deter would be murderers by preparing two wills, with the manner of his death affecting which document will be enacted. This is an interesting element of the mystery’s setup, and it does lead you into predicting the narrative will go a certain way, especially when Harith Athreya is invited to the household to watch after Fernandez. How many detectives, in fiction, have arrived to protect someone, only for their charge to die swiftly afterwards? The disparity between the reader’s anticipated victim and the actual primary victim in the book is one of the cleverer aspects of the story, as it becomes more difficult to decide on a motive, as previously the novel has focused more on revealing the potential motives for bumping off Fernandez. In addition, I liked how Fernandez is not your stereotypical irredeemably unpleasant patriarch. He might want to take charge, but there is a degree of responsibility, care, and generosity in his decisions.
We don’t get much of a backstory to Athreya, although we know he is retired and has considerable experience in investigating crime. He is well connected with the police and judges, though not every policeman knows of this famous sleuth, as Inspector Murthu is highly suspicious of him when he arrives at Fernandez’s property. Murthu fulfils the thorough but incorrect policeman’s role very well. Athreya is not an eccentric amateur sleuth, but he is very observant and able to make accurate inferences. For example, one character says to him: ‘There are two people from the family who are missing from this cemetery […] Do you know why?’ His reply is: ‘Well, I heard that your grandmother’s name was Anjali and Bhaskar’s wife’s name was Sujata. I presume they were cremated, not buried.’ I found this an interesting conversational exchange, as I wasn’t quite sure why the names would indicate a cremation. Do they indicate a person with religious beliefs which would contain a preference for cremation over a burial? This is perhaps not a piece of information I have, coming from the West, but it is a good demonstration of the mystery elements being integrated with the setting of the story.
Like many Golden Age crime novels the book has floor plans and the differences between British and Indian household construction open up some interesting possibilities for would be criminals and miscreants, especially when combined with the pervasive mist.
I began this novel with the theme of expectations and one which this book does not meet is the concept of being a locked-room murder mystery. The building in which the murders take place is not locked and the house where everyone stays is not locked. Some writers consider a mystery to be a locked room one if it has a closed set of suspects, however this title does not truly fulfil this criterion either. There is a landslide, but it does not completely inhibit travel. It is possible to go around it, albeit slowly, and there are other cottages and a resort in the vicinity. Fernandez’s home is not cut off in the way the characters are in Christie’s And Then There Were None (1939). This is not to say that you should not read the book, but if you go into the story with this expectation then you are going to be severely disappointed, especially if you have been used to a diet of the locked room mysteries constructed by John Dickson Carr. However, one possible Carr element, in the tale, is the use of a local legend involving Fernandez’s home, but you could argue that this smacks more of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902).
As mentioned previously, Christie’s name is used a lot, when commenting on this mystery. There is a hint of her style when it comes to the reveal of the primary victim, as the narrative encourages you to make assumptions which then prove to be false. However, I do not feel the twists of the story are Christie-like and whilst these are surprising, some are not built up to fairly, with clues. At her best, a Christie twist has you kicking yourself that you missed clue X and clue Y which would have enabled you to anticipate twist Z. Yet for me A Will to Kill does not manage to do this. But that is not to say that future books in the series will not reach this height, as criminal culpability is interestingly parcelled out in this debut. Hopefully subsequent books will avoid having suspects withholding considerable amounts of information. This can be slightly frustrating for the reader, and in the case of this particular book, did leave one reader, scratching their head as to why Athreya was so strongly encouraged to investigate the crime in the first place.
Whilst there is room for development in terms of puzzle construction, I feel Raman has a creative touch when deploying Golden Age mystery tropes and he blends them well into his setting. There is no sense of them being forced onto it. Furthermore, Athreya is a pleasant investigator to follow, who the reader can easily warm to. I am interested to see what direction the series goes in next.
Source: Review Copy (Pushkin Vertigo)