Wow! What is it with novelists who get nominated for the MWA Best Novel on their first time out? That was the case for Richard Osman with his Thursday Murder Club, and it’s also the case for Deepa Anappara and Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line. In Annappara’s case, she has the credentials as a former journalist and an MA in creative writing. Djinn Patrol has already won numerous prizes.
Told from the perspective of Jai, a 9-year-old boy in a poor “basti” (neighborhood) with superior detectiving skills thanks to a steady TV diet of Police Patrol and Live Crime, the book acknowledges the reality of class in India. When a boy in Jai’s school disappears, who cares? Who looks for him? The family begs and bribes the police to care. Meanwhile, Jai, and his friends Pari and Faiz resolve to solve the mystery, hunting clues – while recognizing the possibility that a djinn (spirit) is at work. As more children disappear, Jai, Pari and Faiz take more and more risks, ultimately taking the greatest risk of confronting the “hi-fi” madam in the moneyed class who use the slum dwellers for anything they wish.
Anappara is a skilled storyteller. The chapters told from Jai’s perspective are fresh and vibrant, presenting the people around him through his eyes, whether it’s the drunken neighbor, the stuttering friend, or his own sister who hopes to use her athletic ability to allow her to do an end-run around barriers for poor women in India to lift herself out of the slum. Chapters told from the POV of a missing child provide even greater insight, heightening the emotional connection and the suspense. The resolution, when it comes, is heart-breaking, particularly as Jai is still uncertain about the motivation underpinning the crimes. As one neighbor tells him, “Believe me, today or tomorrow, every one of us will lose someone close to us… The lucky ones are those who can grow old pretending they have some control over their lives… We are just specks of dust in the world, glimmering for a moment in the sunlight and then disappearing into nothing. You have to learn to make your peace with that.”
Ultimately, Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is the story of grinding poverty, a harsh and unforgiving class system, corruption and loss. Anappara tells it so that we also see community, creativity, joy, and love. This is a deeply moving book.
It is interesting to me to note how very different each of these nominated books are from each other. It makes ranking difficult, as each has much to recommend it, and I was thoroughly engrossed in each one as I read it. Ultimately the edge goes to Djinn Patrol because its strong voice and engaging narrative.
Literary Lunchbox Rankings: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award, Best Novel