Book Review: The Monochrome Madonna by Kalpana Swaminathan

23 Feb

Book cover: Monochrome MadonnaGenre: Detective fiction
Series: A Lalli mystery #3
Publisher: Penguin
Pub date:
Source: Personal copy

I continue dipping my toes in crime thrillers written by Indian authors. I had read about the Lalli series a while ago and sounded like an interesting addition to my list. Rather than start from the first in the series, I decided to go with the latest.

An ex-cop Lalita (Lalli) is the Mumbai policeman’s Last Resort. Lalli is who they turn to to solve the toughest cases. In this latest installment, Lalli comes on the scene a little later. Her niece, Sita is the one who stumbles on the murder (almost literally). Sita gets a call from an old schoolmate, Sitara asking for her help. Sita rushes over to help and is not all that shocked to find a large dead man on the floor of the kitchen. She finds Sitara getting down from the attic, feeling rather confused and unable to remember what happened. She also has no idea who the dead man is.

The other characters are Savio (Lalli’s partner), Vinay (Sitara’s husband), Inspector Shukla (stereotypical cop – judgmental and quick to jump to the wrong conclusions, but ultimately a good guy).

In this murder mystery, nothing is as it seems. Even the Photoshopped Monochrome Madonna that is a focal point at Sitara and Vinay’s house seems to be trying to tell us something else. The relationship between Sitara and her husband Vinay is hard to understand with both of them painting very different pictures of their life together.

The premise was interesting, especially with the piece of art becoming such an important player in the mystery.

Lalli is an interesting character – well-respected, brilliant and like all the great detectives notices the smallest details and draws conclusions from them. She realises that the painting of the Madonna in Sitara’s house has a big role to play in the solving of the case.

Swaminathan’s writing is brilliant, capable of making even the mundane sound interesting, but the plot needed a lot more meat and needed to be tighter. The mystery takes off well enough and the quirky character of Sitara adds to the puzzle. As the story goes on however, there are places where it meanders along a little too slowly.

There are also some plot points that just did not sit well with me:

Sita has to help her parents take care of their business when her mother hurts herself. And through this whole chapter, we don’t see the mystery unraveling in any way. Spending a month helping your parents take care of their rose business, though commendable in the larger scheme of things, has no place in a murder mystery unless it serves to advance the plot. Through that whole chapter, all I could think was, “The trail grows cold!”

Savio tries to befriend the main suspect over this month and more in the hopes that he will confess or let something slip. This was also something I couldn’t get my head around. A detective needs to go out and get the evidence needed to shock the suspect into a confession, not sit around, play housekeeper/psychologist and hope he finds something useful.

This and some of the clues Lalli used to draw her conclusions seemed a little too laboured to me.

With all the holes I’ve poked it this book, it sounds like I didn’t like it at all, doesn’t it? But that’s not quite true. For if it were, I’d hardly have put the first two books in the series on my to-read list.

Swaminathan’s style is witty, and the narrator makes a good detective’s side-kick. I hope that next time around, there is a lot more meat on the bones.


Okay read. Read it to keep up with Indian crime fiction.

Rating: 3.5*

*See my Rating policy

Do you agree with my review, or do you think I’m way off? Just want to say hi? Leave me a comment. I’d love to hear from you.

You can also subscribe to posts by mail or RSS.


6 Responses to “Book Review: The Monochrome Madonna by Kalpana Swaminathan”

  1. Stephanie @ Read in a Single Sitting February 25, 2011 at 3:26 am #

    I’ve been wanting to try some Indian genre fiction (I’ve only read some of the more “literary” stuff), and this sounds interesting.

    The Book Show did an interesting interview about Indian chick lit that you might find interesting:

    And there’s also Shamini Flint, a Malaysian-Indian who writes the Inspector Singh series (which sounds fabulous, and which I must read!) 🙂

    • stargazerpuj February 25, 2011 at 8:51 am #

      Some of the Indian literary fiction is beautiful, but I keep looking for genre fiction or less serious reads.
      Thanks for pointing me to the show. That is a very interesting analysis and I have to say I agree with it.
      I’ve heard of the Inspector Singh series too – must read!

  2. Shivanee R. February 25, 2011 at 9:59 am #

    An interesting review! I must confess that I was initially drawn in by the title. Had I seen this book in a local bookstore, that on its own would have been enough to make me pause. I’d be keen to know what you think of the first two books in the series, when you get around to reading them.

    On the subject of Indian crime fiction, I’ve owned Vikram Chandra’s ‘Sacred Games’ since it was published, but haven’t yet been drawn towards actually cracking it open. Is this a title with which you’re familiar?

    P.S. The forthcoming review in your sidebar, ‘The Eloquence of Desire’, also caught my eye!

    • stargazerpuj February 25, 2011 at 7:00 pm #

      The title is what caught my attention as well. I think I expected a sort of Da Vinci plot. So far Indian crime fiction hasn’t wowed me… Still hoping.

      I haven’t heard of Sacred Games or the author actually. Will do some researching now!

      The Eloquence of Desire is scheduled to post on Monday. Come back and check it out!


  1. South Asian Challenge 2011 Wrap-Up « Stargazerpuj's Book Blog - December 28, 2011

    […] Roy The Girl in the Garden by Kamala Nair The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam (review on 6 Jan 2012) The Monochrome Madonna by Kalpana Swaminathan The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni Tiger Hills by Sarita […]

  2. Book review: A Mysterious Death at Sainik Farms by Rukmini Anandini « Stargazerpuj's Book Blog - April 30, 2012

    […] and a great deal of luck as a means of elimination of suspects, (like A Nice Quiet Holiday or Monochrome Madonna) Sainik Farms has a combination of forensic work and interviews, which makes it a little more […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: