I very much enjoy reading crime fiction, particularly the type that is so dark and surreal that it has been tagged with the words “noir fiction” as the best way to describe it. That means that most of my favorite fictional detectives tend to live rather bleak lives on their own, usually estranged from an ex-wife or two and, often enough, even from their children. They drink too much, don’t sleep nearly enough, chain-smoke as the rest of the world scowls at them, and wouldn’t recognize a proper meal if someone accidentally brought it to their table. They are good detectives, but losers at the game of life – a characteristic shared by most of the characters in this kind of fiction. Seldom are there clean winners in these books; when the smoke finally clears life just goes on much as it always has for most everyone concerned.
All of this is what drew me to V. Sanjay Kumar’s The Third Squad, a new novel whose publisher has labeled it a “ripped-from-the-headlines noir novel” about the Indian Police Service’s decision to assassinate hundreds of suspected criminals without ever bringing formal charges against them. Apparently the Mumbai police see this as the best chance police have of stemming the growth of criminal activity in that city. So much so, in fact, that numerous hit squads have been assembled to carry out the deadly work required of them. All of this (even though it is based upon fact) has that surreal feel to it that I expect from noir fiction and would be “dark” simply by definition. But throw in the book’s setting, a city teeming with people, potential crime, and a rogue police force, and what could be more perfect for fans of noir writing. Right? Well, not so fast.
The best thing about The Third Squad is the nature of the particular hit squad of which its chief character is a member. It seems that one of the Mumbai police higher-ups has come up with the theory that the best assassins all fall somewhere along the scale that measures autism – and he begins to recruit those types for further training. None of these men, despite being aware that they are a little different when it comes to social skills and the like, has any idea that autism is what makes them feel so different. All of this works very well for the man who put the squad together until Karan (who has a relatively mild case of Asperger’s syndrome) begins to grow a conscious – and refuses to kill anyone he does not “know.”
Kumar’s portrayal of the various degrees of autism and those who have it is interesting and gives the impression that the illness has been well researched by the author. This aspect of the novel, alone, guarantees that The Third Squad will be one to stick in the minds of its readers. Too, Kumar does a masterful job building the story’s tension level as Karan draws closer and closer to his final confrontation with his superiors in the Indian Police Service.
So why did it not work for me as well as I hoped it would? Simply put, I found it difficult to distinguish between some of the characters and to keep the long Indian surnames clear in my mind. The plot is a very complicated one involving much in-fighting and backstabbing, flash backs, stream-of-consciousness thinking, dreams, and subplots, and I found it all a bit confusing. I blame some of my confusion on myself – perhaps my mind drifted at the wrong moments, etc. – but I have to believe that a more straightforward telling of this one would have delivered a more striking tale than the one ultimately delivered by the author.
Bottom Line: There is a lot to like about The Third Squad, a whole lot, in fact – and a little to dislike about it. It’s not a perfect novel, but it’s one I’m going to remember for a while because of its unique plot.