I have a confession to make… the main reason I initially wanted to read this book is because its (fantastic) epigraph is taken from Natural Born Killers. I’m a huge fan of epigraphs, and this is one of the most pertinent I’ve come across. It’s the allegory Russell Means’s character, Old Indian, tells about the snake; the one that ends with the snake saying “look, bitch, you knew I was a snake.”
The Third Squad is a crime novel unlike any I’ve read before. Yes, I know, I’ve only read three. But still. It is: trust me. Rather than focusing on the solving of a murder/misdemeanour it takes the reader on a journey through the streets and chawls of Mumbai, examining issues of justice and morality within the Indian Police Service itself.
Our protagonist, Karan, is a member of the elite Third Squad, a secret task force which acts to eliminate the most dangerous criminal element of Mumbai’s very murky underworld. Karan is the star of the squad – a sniper who never misses – under the enigmatic commander Ranvir Pratap (who, in my head, is played by Art Malik). Members of the team are all on the autistic spectrum and have been hand selected by Pratap for that reason: “you guys are not meant to respond like the rest of humanity. That’s not your nature. Right, Karan?”
Karan has mild Asperger’s syndrome, allowing his natural efficiency, poise and detachment to aid him in his work. But Karan is emotionally complex, moreso than his other three team-mates – “I am a known weak link” – and the questionable morality of job wears him down, although this process had already begun during his training. His wife Nandini is another brilliant character who acts as something of Karan’s conscience – through her we see the complex truth and full tilt of Mumbai’s streetlife (she’s a walking tour guide).
The Third Squad has a clever narrative structure, purposefully disjointed in order to unravel bit by bit the reality, and the stakes, of criminal justice in the city as well as the impact this has on Karan’s psyche. Much of the book is narrated in the first person by Karan, but there is also a third person narrator who pulls back from Karan to reveal the goings on in the lives and minds of the more peripheral characters – Nandini, Pratap and other senior figures in the IPS, as well as, crucially, Evam Bhaskar – psychologist and founder of the children’s home where Karan grows up, and who later recommends candidates for Pratap’s squad.
The result of these narrative strands, the complex network of characters and, of course, Mumbai itself, is a potent blend of surrealism and noir, rendering this novel unlike any novel I’ve ever read, crime or otherwise.