If ever a genre of books was to win a modelling contract on the basis of the votes it got, it would be a Thriller. It’s almost as if aliens in the guise of murder mysteries and detective novels have come to take over the Earth. And even America seems to have no superhero to lead readers to an Independence Day away from this upsurge. However, since we all know by now that the publishing industry too has a demand and supply chain mechanism in place, we have kind of accepted that the young pulse of today says ‘thrill me chill me, even if you have to kill me in the end.’
That is why, when Srinu Pandranki asked me to review his book ‘X Square’ I did look up Heavenwards. Then, when I looked back down again, something caught my attention. Srinu is actually a movie director and ‘X Square’ a book adaptation of his critically acclaimed screenplay by the same name. Now that took curiosity to an entirely different level, yes sir! Adaptations between two different media can be a see-saw of surprises and disappointments. Once I knew this plot was a screenplay, I couldn’t keep that aspect out of my mind when I read the book. Was I waiting for a nail-biting, gun-toting, gory, very visual extravaganza being played out in the book? Yes. Did I get it? Let’s see.
Story in a bullet first.
The book is set in the peaceful town of Palo Alto, California, introduced to us in all its scenic beauty, with a mixed-culture and very low crime rates. That is why, when three brutal murders rock its peace and shock the residents, the best in the police department are called forth to investigate and catch the murderer/s. Shreya Dutt, a tough young homicide detective of Indian origin, teams up with Kevin Holmes - a Homicide Detective now living an uneventful life to plunge headlong into the mystery surrounding the crimes. The book takes us from the grand locales of Palo Alto to shop-lined Chinatown and even to the grimy streets of East Palo Alto. What are we looking for? The seemingly elusive “murder weapon”, rightly called ‘X Square’. Do they find it? What is it, exactly? Do they get to keep it? Well, if you think I will tell you more, I will not!
I read this book in one sitting ...
Yes, I did! Of course, with winters sliding in my boy likes to sleep longer and so that gave me a window to do this. Other than that, it was thanks to two things that Srinu made sure he gave the book – (i) a spectacular visual appeal, and (ii) a continuum of suspense maintained by the narration.
The description of places, people, scenes and situations is so meticulously done that not a detail will escape your mind’s eye even as not a single mention of a button or a bottle will feel out-of-place. For instance, I could see the murdered women with horrific clarity. From facial expressions of characters to movements, photographs to contents of drawers – reading ‘X Square’ was indeed like watching images on a screen, with each image almost never over-done. That it was originally a screen play must have helped. At the end of the first chapter itself, you realize that God is in the details, as is the hunt and the final spotting of X Square much later in the book.
It is interesting to notice two ‘voices’ in the book propelling the story – the narrator’s and the character-speak. The narration is kept taut and tense for the most part of the book, which doesn’t let suspense sag. Each chapter is often divided into short scenes, and much like in a movie we move – scene to snappy scene, clue to another maze. Throughout the investigations, Kevin and Shreya are ‘only working on suspicion’ even though ‘all the three accused have left their fingerprints all over the murder scene’. With this as the premise, all information is dispensed to the readers much like a syringe administering medicine –gradually and without knowing when the prick is coming. Usually, the prick comes as the last sentence of a chapter, compelling you to read further.
There is a bit of word-play involved too, added when you least expect it and adding to the convoluted investigation. For instance, Bruce, one out of the three accused being interrogated yet another time thinks to himself – ‘Well, I’m not telling them anything new. They will not make me crack.’ which could pretty much mean both guilty and not-guilty. That each of the murdered has a friend as an accused, and that each accused earnestly keeps repeating ‘I don’t know. I don’t remember’ creates three parallel sub-plots ultimately connected by the X-factor Kevin and Shreya are looking for. While motivations for the three seemingly unconnected murders are nothing but human emotions gone awry, why they went awry takes the book on a ‘super natural’ tangent; enough to make us think if the masked intruder ransacking houses is actually a ghost!
Even after the two detectives have discovered what X Square is, Srinu is in no hurry to reveal it to his readers. We continue in suspended suspense, and much like Kevin who ‘was happy with himself. He was making remarkable progress in the case, or so he thought’ sit we, on no solid ground, knowing Srinu by now and also knowing at every thread tied that ‘This might have been the climax. It surely is not the end’.
That is, up until the identity of X Square is revealed.
After that, the book flips on its head and everything I just said falls apart.
… which doesn’t mean it’s perfect!
All good things must come to an end. With the book ‘X Square’, they did for me soon as I was told what X Square was, just a few chapters before the end. Interesting as the revelation of the concept may have been (forgive me for calling it a ‘concept’ since I cannot say more) the book itself wanes into damp action scenes and over-explanations so reminiscent of Hollywood that you no longer feel interested in reading any further. The tight and intelligent depiction of the investigations was a smooth balance achieved between book and screenplay. The action bit seemed a bit of a literal translation of the latter, adding a sense of big-screen typicality to a book that was proceeding so well. As for the closure, The Thing going missing suddenly shows the author too desperate for a sequel.
Then, while Srinu created each character (and there are many from various cultures and races) in such painstaking detail, along with their individual stories, why did he not work hard to make each sound different from the other? Except an African American house maid, everyone speaks the same way, a way either too formal or too homogeneous for a cultural melting pot that US of A is. I found this amiss with the characterization. Say, ‘no point crying over spilt milk’ is not something I would say to a co-detective after an intruder steals some very important files right from inside the police room, and in the heat of the investigations. I never thought I would ask this question, but where be the slang, dammit?
Silly mistakes which seemed to be made in a hurry (by the author, editor or auto-correct?) spring up a few times in the book. ‘Shreya gave one last look at the crime scene’, ‘those little followers of him’, ‘made a well neat family’ and ‘please, answer only to the questions you are asked’ being some of them. Not too many to be a big bother, but there, in case you can spot them!
Yet again I think …
… as to why we love to associate contrabands and exotic concoctions, gun-toting and mindless crime with the orient or with the Dark Continent. Likewise, do crime fighters have to be white? Of course, Shreya isn’t (perhaps because the author is Indian?), but the book’s bent towards reinforcing stereotypes (as do most movies!) is visible. If the colour-scheme was reversed, even if for a day, what a trailblazer such a book could have been!
Srinu added exclusivity to his story ‘X Square’ by placing his serial murder mystery in a place where it is least expected, because 'the murder rate has declined to a low of just 11 murders in the last decade. According to police records, there are 15 registered sex offenders living in Palo Alto as of February 14, 2014’, as the introduction tells us. Though Srinu did well in how he made this a visual entertainer with a gripping story, he failed to give ‘X Square’ the X-factor to make it an unconventional thriller among the many being written in recent times.
Title: X Square
Author - Srinu Pandranki
[The review was commissioned by the author. All views are my own.]