The Blue Bar by Damyanti Biswas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The discovery of a dead body on real estate tycoon Rahul Taneja's lands sets Inspector Arnav Singh Rajput on a trail that may not only uncover a serial killer, but also dig up things in his own past that he's long since buried. Like his dead sister, who he's still trying to find justice for. Or Tara, his once-girlfriend, who vanished without a word. But the path to solving this case is blocked by rich men with friends in high places, corruption at the highest levels of government, and complications from two warring Mumbai gangs.
Biswas drops you into the heat of things in Mumbai, immersing you in a gritty world that is unlike the usual crime thriller settings in the UK or USA. In her words, you can almost feel the push and pull of the crowds gathering for Dussehra and Diwali and hear the street vendors offering bhelpuri and pao bhaji. She adds authenticity with the use of local terms, often following them up with a deft explanation, expecting you to remember it from then on.
Each chapter is told from a different POV--most of it Arnav and Tara, though occasionally we hear from the unsub and his assistant Bilal. In Arnav's voice, you hear his frustration and conflict, in Tara's, you feel her tenacity and her fear. It's the unsub's voice that is chilling in its depravity, callousness and anger--and when the final reveal comes, you're left reeling, like how...? and yet how inevitable.
Like in You Beneath Your Skin, Biswas is not afraid to show the seedier parts of India, highlighting the way women are often disregarded and their lives treated as nothing but "packages" and "item numbers". She shows the horrifying requests men make of women who have no other options, but she also shows the horrible things women can do to young, naive boys in their power.
The Blue Bar is very much a story of powerlessness, whether is Arnav against the serial killer and the corruption in the police force; or Tara against the seedy men who are out to destroy the life she's managed to build for herself; or the unsub against his tormentor, but it is also about choice and risk, and taking responsibility for those choices.
Where in many crime thrillers, you watch as jaded protagonists' lives are falling apart, in this one, Arnav is faced with a second chance at family and happiness. Will he take it?
Note: I received a digital ARC of this book from Thomas & Mercer via Netgalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.
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