Title – Murder In The City
Author – Supratim Sarkar (Translated by Swati Sengupta)
Genre – Non-fiction, anthology
As part of my birthday reading goals, this book was picked as a representative from the state of West Bengal in India. Murder In The City is a collection of police case files, sourced from the archives and narrated in the form of stories. A Bengali friend revealed the concept of these “stories” originated as a series of articles written in the Bangla language by Supratim Sarkar, a police officer himself. Translator Swati Sengupta published them as a book in English this year.
~ “Imagine a policeman killing his own brother, and burying the body in a house where he continued to live!”
~ “Everything that a school-going child was likely to have was in place – exercise copies inside a school bag, tiffin box, water bottle. The school boy was there too, his uniformed, lifeless body inside the trunk.”
~ “They opened the packets one after the other. They contained two arms, palms, fingers, wrists, all chopped into pieces.”
A man injected with the Pasteurella Pestis bacteria to be killed off from the plague, a pregnant woman’s body chopped into pieces and wrapped into packets strewn across public spaces (a separate packet for the foetus too), a seemingly docile housewife plotting the murder of a neighbor she suspects of having an affair with her husband, a man killed by his brother and the corpse buried within the wall of a house the accused continues to live in, a child kidnapped and killed by novice abductors who can’t seem to make him unconscious, an off-duty policeman standing up for a woman being molested finds himself attacked and killed by a gang of fellow off-duty policemen, and many more gruesome tales. These are not spoilers. Murder In The City is a compendium of twelve case files of the Kolkata Police, taking the reader across decades and centuries – from as early as the 1930s to the present day. Those who were alive when the murders happened might recall these cases from the news reports of the time. Sarkar frequently mentions how old the victims might have been today were they still alive, or what they might have accomplished in the professional sphere had their lives not been cut short. The Kolkata Police is known as one of the oldest and most illustrious police forces in India. Sarkar has dug deep into their archives and recounted astonishing cases, of which twelve tales have been presented in this book. The writings which were initially in Bengali were widely read and shared among populations who could read the language. The translation here is equally gripping and fascinating. Police officer Sarkar’s writing skills are commendable. Some snippets of his figures of speech:
~ “An ordinary afternoon was quickly taking strides towards evening time, as if it were rushed off its feet.”
~ “His sharp voice cut through the stillness of the night. It could have broken a sheet of glass into shards.”
~ “Those biting cold nights were tough players that refused to let go of the crease.”
Some of the cases selected for the anthology include the first two times “photographic superimposition” was ever used in India to identify a body, cases of murder solved even though the bodies were never found, cases of individual bioterrorism, murder mysteries solved during the early days when DNA testing or mobile phones and CCTV cameras didn’t exist. Murder In The City reinforces the old adage of fact being stranger than fiction, where one shudders to think that these are all true stories. I took a while to finish the book and had to pause after every tale to reflect on the happenings – the level of evilness in the perpetrators, of victims who were tortured and killed, of the tenacity of the police to bring justice, and the author being a policeman himself narrating the efforts of his former colleagues. The book highlights what the police go through in their jobs, the details of investigations, the steps involved in solving crimes, how clues are tracked, evidence is collected – with frequent comparisons drawn to fictional detectives who paint a glamorous picture of case solving, but the reality being far more hard-hitting and not so alluring.
A brilliantly written and translated account of some of the grisliest and most baffling police cases, every story is a spine-tingling experience. A word of caution for readers who cannot stomach gory descriptions – Sarkar has gone all out in explaining the details of each case. Read this book for a real-life account of murder mysteries, and the first-hand information from the forces who solve them. I usually pick my favorite of the lot from anthologies, but it’s hard to do so in this case because “favorite” would translate to most gory or sinister – the levels people can stoop to dispose off another human being makes for brilliant reading but a shocking experience. And if the hallmark of good literature is how it moves the reader, then each of these tales stand out in their own gruesome and sinister way.
My rating – 5/5