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Published on: 05/5/24 6:50 AM

Book review: The Kidnapping of Mark Twain by Anuradha Kumar

The mystery of the missing writer

First, the good news. Indian detective fiction is alive, well, and flourishing. Period detective fiction, a sub-genre of the same, has seen some wonderful books being published,  the period detail adding a special texture to the whole whodunit genre.

The Kidnapping of Mark Twain traverses the same space. Set in the Bombay of 1896, it has two characters who turn amateur sleuths to crack the mystery of the famous American writer who goes missing from the city.

There is an adept interleaving of fact and fiction here. Mark Twain did visit Bombay in early 1896 when he was travelling around the world giving lectures and readings to pay off some debts. Some of the places, characters and incidents that Twain  mentions in a  book he subsequently wrote are expertly woven into the story here.

In this narrative, Twain and his family are met by Henry Baker, the American Trade Consul. After a convivial meeting followed by a lavish dinner at the ostentatious house of a local luminary, Twain suddenly goes missing the next day. At the same time, a girl is  murdered. Her husband, accused of the crime, wields vast influence among the mill workers of Bombay. This leads to protests and strikes. Then, there is a band of jewel thieves out and about. The police are quite stretched, trying to handle all this; Baker and his friend, Maya Barton, have to do what they can to unravel the mystery of the missing writer.

There is another reason why Twain has to be found quickly and without any fuss. America, at this point, is still coming into its own and Baker would rather not have a diplomatic fracas ensue over a famous American author going missing in British- ruled India. Through Baker, the author gives us a glimpse of how the Americans viewed the British at the time, how they are aghast at the way the British throw their weight around, by the way they demand obsequiousness from their juniors.  However,  Baker is also pragmatic enough to realise that it would help him to adopt some of these attitudes.

Both Baker and Barton are drawn as outsiders, who in their quest to fit in, forge a friendship. Baker is a commoner with no real connections in Bombay,  though his  Yale degree does open some doors. Barton is burdened by rumours of a past that casts her in dubious light. But they both have an advantage that lets them socialise with everyone, including those from high society. Baker who appears to be an amiable open man, comes from the land of the presumed rich. Barton, more of a maverick and rule- breaker,  has good looks on her side. Predictably,  there is the whiff of romance brewing between them but a spanner is put in these  works by Maya’s attraction to another person.

Many strands to the story

The  whole cast of characters that make up the story are all uniformly sharply drawn. Baker`s  competitor for Barton’s affections, an American magician who is indulging in all sorts of doubtful activities,  is an interesting character. The villain of the piece, a British preacher, is depicted as more sly and devious than really evil or dangerous.

There are many strands in the story dealing with the opium trade, thieving tribes and the labour conditions of mill workers to name a few, and they are artfully folded into the narrative. Yet, when the crime is solved and all loose ends tied up, one is left slightly underwhelmed.

The author has an eye for detail and paints a vivid portrait of Victorian Bombay, a  city that attracts all kinds — an American author, a German filmmaker, even a Serbian musician.  The settings, be it the house of a rich businessman, the Watsons Hotel patronised by the well- heeled, Baker’s rooms at the Byculla Club or other areas in Bombay, all spring to life on the page. The evident research done has been adroitly translated to the page.

There is mystery, murder, kidnapping, red herrings and lots else in this book but all of it plays out in a genteel manner. Even when Baker and Barton face peril, one does not sense any real danger to them. The book is an engaging atmospheric read.

The Kidnapping of Mark Twain by Anuradha Kumar. Speaking Tiger. 330 pages. 499 rupees.

This ran in the Sunday Herald of 5 May 2024.

Related Links:

Book review: Is Shakespeare Dead by Mark Twain


Anuradha KumarBombay storymysterySpeaking Tiger Booksthe kidnapping of Mark Twain

Sheila Kumar • May 5, 2024

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