The best detective novels from India
Writers from India have garnered a large share of critical attention for their work in recent years, and no wonder. The country has a rich literary tradition, which has animated a new generation of writers to publish in English. And there is no lack of English-speakers on the subcontinent. At a conservative estimate, they number some 300 million in India today. And that’s about the same number of people for whom the United States is home.
Indians have made an especially rich contribution to the literature of suspense. A veritable flood of mysteries and thrillers have issued forth from the subcontinent. So many, that I’ve only managed to sample the field. And of those I’ve read — from cover to cover, by the way — I’m listing here the ones I’ve found most enjoyable.
TWO LISTS OF THE BEST INDIAN DETECTIVE NOVELS
The titles below are grouped in two sections. First come the five novels I’ve judged the best of the lot — but with a caveat. I’ve only included one title per author. As you’ll see by my ratings, I found many of the books here to be outstanding. The full list follows. In both lists, I’ve grouped the books in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names. Following each title is a link to my review.
You’ll note that a handful of the books I’ve included here are not, properly speaking novels about detectives. For example, in the case of one series, a lawyer acts as a detective. In another, a young boy fills the role. But in all cases, the protagonist pursues an investigation into one or more crimes. They’re detectives in fact if not in name.
THE 5 BEST INDIAN DETECTIVE NOVELS
DJINN PATROL ON THE PURPLE LINE BY DEEPA ANAPPARA (2020) 345 PAGES ★★★★★ — A DEEPLY AFFECTING TALE OF CHILD TRAFFICKING IN INDIA TODAY
Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is one of the most highly praised novels of recent years. It’s the fiction debut of Deepa Anappara, an Indian journalist transposed to London. It seems likely that in other hands, the story she tells in this novel might well have wandered off into sensationalism, pathos, or worse. But Anappara deftly relates a horrific tale of child abductions in a New Delhi slum by telling it through the voices of children. It’s a virtuoso performance, at the same time both deeply affecting and revealing. The book lays bare the harsh reality of child trafficking in India today more poignantly and more memorably than any journalistic account.
The protagonist of this novel is nine-year-old Jai, a reluctant schoolboy who lives with his parents and his big sister, Runu, in a one-room home we would consider a shack. Their basti (neighborhood) is located adjacent to several high-rise luxury towers and not far from the Purple Line of the Delhi Metro. Jai is a devotee of cop shows on TV, and when a schoolmate named Bahadur goes missing, he attempts to enlist two of his friends to join him as detectives. Pari is a girl who is one of the school’s top students and is far smarter than Jai. Faiz, who is Muslim, is convinced that djinns (ghouls) have snatched Bahadur and is terrified of crossing them. And he won’t let Jai boss him around. Read more.
THE CASE OF THE DEADLY BUTTER CHICKEN (VISH PURI #3 OF 5) BY TARQUIN HALL (2012) 354 PAGES ★★★★★ — INDIA’S #1 PRIVATE DETECTIVE IS AN UNFORGETTABLE CHARACTER
There are several ways to get to know India. Naturally, you can move there and stay for, say, a couple of dozen years. (Anything much shorter won’t do the trick.) You could also read all the travel guides ever written about the country, and that might give you a pretty good sense of the place. Or you could read the mystery novels featuring Vish Puri, “India’s #1 private detective,” by Tarquin Hall.
The third book in Hall’s series, The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken, may be the best introduction of all, at least to northern India. Hall will immerse you in the sights and sounds and smells of Delhi and other northern cities. He’ll treat you to the taste of the distinctive local cuisine. He’ll give you a peek into the country’s history and into the way business (both legal and not) is done there. And along the way he’ll make you laugh a lot.
On one level, The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken is a simple mystery story about “India’s #1 private detective.” Well, not so simple, really, because Hall adroitly weaves together three subplots, maintaining suspense throughout. But it’s so much more, really. Somehow, even though the author is an Englishman and lived in New Delhi for only six years, he has managed to gain an appreciation for the people and the culture and convey it all precisely in fewer than 400 pages. Read more.
MURDER IN OLD BOMBAY BY NEV MARCH (2020) 392 PAGES ★★★★★ — A BRILLIANT DEBUT NOVEL BASED ON AN UNSOLVED MURDER
All the elements are here for a gripping mystery. The brutal unsolved murder of two young society ladies. A posh mansion on a hill in the city’s most exclusive neighborhood. Military expeditions into territory ruled by violent tribesmen. The devout members of a tiny religious sect. And, yes, royalty. It all comes together in the widely-acclaimed debut novel by Indo-American author Nev March.
Bombay. 1892. Thirty-year-old Captain James Agnihotri, late of the Fourteenth Light Dragoons, has left a military hospital after lengthy treatment for wounds he suffered on the Northwest Frontier. In the hospital, he had read an impassioned letter to the editor that unsettled him. A wealthy young Indian lawyer named Adi Framji had written the letter, pleading for an explanation for the deaths of his wife and sister. Now, Agnihotri has resolved to emulate his literary hero, Sherlock Holmes, and investigate on Framji’s behalf the young women’s unsolved murder. Framji will pay him well. Read more.
THE WIDOWS OF MALABAR HILL (PERVEEN MISTRY #1) BY SUJATA MASSEY (2018) 401 PAGES ★★★★★ — THE FIRST WOMAN LAWYER IN BOMBAY SOLVES A BAFFLING MYSTERY
I enjoy reading mysteries and thrillers, and I have a special preference for historical fiction. But when an author brings the two genres together and does a superior job in both of them, I’m entranced. And that’s certainly the case with The Widows of Malabar Hill. Sujata Massey‘s brilliant mystery novel is set in Bombay in 1921. And it casts a bright light on the little-known but fascinating Parsi minority in India.
Massey sets the scene for a new series of novels featuring Perveen Mistry, the first and only woman lawyer in Bombay. It’s 1921, shortly after the First World War. Perveen is six months into her work as a solicitor in her father’s firm, Mistry Law. Because her father is busy elsewhere, she follows up on a puzzling case involving three widows who live in purdah. Their husband had died recently, and it looked as though the young man he had appointed to run the household was trying to cheat the widows out of their inheritance. With great difficulty, Perveen gains entry to the isolated section of the house on Malabar Hill where the widows live. But soon her investigation runs afoul of the head of the household. And then murder enters the scene. Read more.
A RISING MAN (WYNDHAM AND BANERJEE #1) BY ABIR MUKHERJEE (2017) 390 PAGES ★★★★★ — A BRILLIANT HISTORICAL DETECTIVE NOVEL SET IN INDIA FOLLOWING WORLD WAR I
India was the first major nation to gain its independence from Great Britain in the years following World War II when, in 1947, Viceroy Lord Mountbatten partitioned the subcontinent into two countries. But the nation’s independence had been a long time coming. The Indian National Congress, founded in 1885, led the movement for separation from Britain for six decades. Although Mohandas Gandhi is typically credited with leading that movement and achieving his goal through non-violence, in fact he didn’t return to India from South Africa until 1915, twenty years after the Congress Party was established and didn’t attain its leadership until six years later.
Meanwhile, others were lashing out against the Raj in more traditional ways, with violence. Revolutionary groups sprang up all across the subcontinent. And in A Rising Man, the first of Abir Mukherjee’s series of historical detective novels set in India, we find ourselves deeply embroiled in the fractious mood of the Indian people in the wake of World War I, just as Gandhi was moving into the leadership of the Congress. Read more.
THE FULL LIST OF THE BEST INDIAN DETECTIVE NOVELS I’VE REVIEWED
Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara (2020) 345 pages ★★★★★ — A deeply affecting tale of child trafficking in India today
THE VISH PURI SERIES BY TARQUIN HALL
- The Case of the Missing Servant (Vish Puri #1 of 5) by Tarquin Hall (2009) 304 pages ★★★★☆ — Vish Puri is either India’s #1 private investigator or #2
- The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing (Vish Puri #2 of 5) by Tarquin Hall (2010) 322 pages ★★★★★ — Vish Puri and the case of the man who died laughing
- The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken (Vish Puri #3 of 5) by Tarquin Hall (2012) 354 pages ★★★★★ — India’s #1 private detective is an unforgettable character
- The Case of the Love Commandos (Vish Puri #4 of 5) by Tarquin Hall (2013) 321 pages ★★★★★ — India’s #1 private detective and the Love Commandos
- The Case of the Reincarnated Client (Vish Puri #5 of 5) by Tarquin Hall (2019) 253 pages ★★★★☆ — India’s tragic history explains this clever Indian detective novel
Murder in Old Bombay by Nev March (2020) 392 pages ★★★★★ — A brilliant debut novel based on an unsolved murder
SUJATA MASSEY’S PERVEEN MISTRY NOVELS
- The Widows of Malabar Hill (Perveen Mistry #1) by Sujata Massey (2018) 401 pages ★★★★★ — The first woman lawyer in Bombay solves a baffling mystery
- The Satapur Moonstone (Perveen Mistry #2) by Sujata Massey (2019) 361 pages ★★★★★ — A murder mystery set in colonial India highlights the princely states
- The Bombay Prince (Perveen Mistry #3) by Sujata Massey (2021) 298 pages ★★★★☆ — Murder in Bombay during the Indian independence movement
THE WYNDHAM AND BANERJEE BOOKS BY ABIR MUKHERJEE
- A Rising Man (Wyndham and Banerjee #1) by Abir Mukherjee (2017) 390 pages ★★★★★ — A brilliant historical detective novel set in India following World War I
- A Necessary Evil (Wyndham and Banerjee #2) by Abir Mukherjee (2018) 381 pages ★★★★★ — A royal murder in colonial India with hundreds of suspects
- Smoke and Ashes (Wyndham and Banerjee #3) by Abir Mukherjee (2019) 337 pages ★★★★★ — A brilliantly constructed murder mystery set in colonial Calcutta
- Death in the East (Wyndham & Banerjee #4) by Abir Mukherjee (2020) 429 pages ★★★★☆ — A murder mystery in the British Raj
- The Shadows of Men (Wyndham and Banerjee #5) by Abir Mukherjee (2021) 349 pages ★★★★☆ — The latest in a superb historical mystery series set in 1920s India
FOR MORE READING
I’ve reviewed a number of other books about India. You’ll find them in Good books about India, past and present.
You might also enjoy my posts:
- Top 10 mystery and thriller series
- 20 excellent standalone mysteries and thrillers
- 5 top novels about private detectives
- 30 outstanding detective series from around the world
For an abundance of great mystery stories, go to:
And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, plus a guide to this whole site, on the Home Page of Mal Warwick on Books.