Must-read books for May
This month James Walton has his eyes on two thrilling reads where the real mysteries are human relationships
Murder at the Grand Raj Palace by Vaseem Khan
I can’t imagine anybody not enjoying this book. In the fourth instalment of Vaseem Khan’s deservedly popular series, detective Ashwin Chopra is called in to investigate the fatal stabbing of an American billionaire in Mumbai’s grandest hotel. For PR reasons, the authorities would like a verdict of suicide. But might the man have actually been murdered? (Spoiler alert: have a guess.)
What follows contains plenty of trusty whodunit elements, including a group of suspects who all have their dark secrets, but are still obliging enough to assemble in a single room for the big reveal. Yet, there’s a lot in the novel that’s far more quirky and unexpected than that—not least Chopra’s sidekick: a shamelessly scene-stealing baby elephant. Along the way, we also get a vivid and not always flattering sense of today’s India, with its mix of the ancient and brashly modern.
The result has the same winning blend of thrills, charm and local colour as Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. It would make a great Death in Paradise-style TV series as well—although, of course, the makers would need an unusually skilful elephant handler.
Whistle in the Dark by Emma Healey
Lana, a troubled 15-year-old, disappears while on holiday with her mother Jen. Four days later, she returns sporting a few minor wounds, but is either unable or unwilling to explain what happened. In this eagerly-awaited successor to Healey’s all-conquering debut Elizabeth Is Missing, we do eventually find out. Nonetheless, though the book is initially structured like a thriller, its real interests lie in the dynamics of family life.
Jen and Lana’s relationship is at heart a heightened but recognisable version of that between many parents and their teenage children. Jen’s main reactions to her increasingly mysterious daughter are bafflement and anxiety, with moments of slightly pathetic gratitude whenever Lana says something pleasant. Healey is also extremely good on Lana’s struggle to seem like a grown-up: a struggle, it turns out, in which she’s not alone—because Jen is trying pretty hard to seem like one too.
Admittedly, fans of flat-out thrillers may occasionally wonder where the plot’s gone. But even they will surely be impressed by Healey’s sharp and sympathetic depiction of the whole strange business of having a teenage child—and of being one.
RD's recommended read:
To Catch a Thief
A bizarre and yet utterly gripping tale of an unlikely museum theft is the topic of this month’s choice read…
In June 2009, Edwin Rist broke into the Natural History Museum in Tring, Hertfordshire. Which mightn’t sound like the obvious starting point for a gripping work of non-fiction—except that in The Feather Thief that’s exactly what we get.
Growing up in New York, Edwin was a brilliant student, and such a good flautist that, at 17, he won a place at the Royal Academy of Music in London. But by then he’d developed another obsession: with tying exotic feathers to hooks for use in fly-fishing (although, like many obsessive tiers, he himself didn’t bother with the fishing part).
Once in Britain, Edwin vowed to leave this obsession behind. But that was before he heard about the priceless collection of bird skins locked away in Tring—many of them gathered by the great Victorian naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace. Posing as an academic researcher, Edwin got permission to photograph the collection. Soon afterwards, he decided to steal it.
The subsequent theft and hunt for the culprit make for a genuinely thrilling true-crime yarn. Yet, as Kirk Wallace Johnson fills us in on the historical context, everything else proves fascinating too: from Wallace’s hair-raising jungle expeditions to the “feather fever” of the late 19th century when hundreds of millions of birds were slaughtered to decorate women’s hats—leading to the founding of the RSPB. When Edwin starts to sell his booty, we’re also plunged deep into the surprisingly shadowy world of modern fly-tying, where trade in illegal feathers is widespread. The upshot is perhaps the only book about a flautist stealing birds from a museum that you can imagine being made into a hit movie.
We join Edwin here as he’s planning the robbery…
"As he ducked in and out of class and rehearsal rooms, he thought through the details of the plan. How would he get inside? What route would ensure he remained inside the museum for the minimum amount of time? Should he start with the Birds of Paradise, the Blue Chatterers or the Indian Crows? How often did the guards make rounds? How many guards were there? Where were the security cameras? If he entered through a window, how would he climb back out with a suitcase full of birds? Would one suitcase suffice?
He created a Word document titled ‘PLAN FOR MUSEUM INVASION’ and started compiling a list of tools he’d need: grappling hooks, a laser glass cutter, latex gloves to conceal his fingerprints.
Sometimes an inner voice would say This is ridiculous!, but it was always drowned out by the other voice pushing him forward.
The moment Edwin’s plans emerged from the realm of fantasy transpired during a routine check-up at a doctor’s surgery. While he was waiting in the examination room, his eyes fell on a box of latex gloves. I’m gonna need a pair of those, he thought, pocketing them.
And so Edwin’s preparations began in earnest. On 11 June 2009, he ordered an 8mm diamond-blade glass cutter. To protect the spoils from insects, he ordered 50 mothballs.
He transferred the photographs from his camera to his computer and studied the proximity of one cabinet to another, assessing how long it might take to cover each of his coveted species. He went online and studied maps of Tring. The train station was east of the town centre, a good two miles of dimly lit country road away. It would be easy enough to slip into the town, but once he arrived at Akeman Street for the final quarter-mile to the museum, he’d be face to face with the police station.
"There was a wall, but he could easily scale it. There was barbed wire, but he could easily snip it"
But he had already discovered a less conspicuous approach: an alleyway running parallel to Akeman, weaving behind the houses and restaurants. The path would deposit him directly behind the Ornithology Building.
There was a wall, but he could easily scale it. There was barbed wire, but he could easily snip it. There was a museum window on the first floor, just a few feet from the wall, but he could reach it.
All that remained was to select the optimal date. If he was to do it before the Royal Academy of Music’s term ended on 1 July, when he would return home to New York, he was running out of time. The morning of 23 June, Edwin woke up ready, confident. He performed at the academy’s ‘London Soundscapes’, a day-long tribute to composers who had left their mark on the city. In his concert hall locker, he stashed an empty suitcase, a miniature torch, wire cutter, the gloves and the glass cutter. After the performance, he swapped his flute for the suitcase, made his way to Euston Station, and boarded an evening train