Lethal Spice

Title: Lethal Spice

Author: Swati Kaushal

Publisher: Hachette India

Let me confess – I am a whodunit junkie. Like Ellery Queen once said, I like a well-rounded crime where all the facts are laid out to a reader with a challenge to unravel it. While in this case, perhaps all the facts are not available to the reader, but at least the murderer is in plain sight. And in all fairness, Ms. Kaushal did keep the pulse racing to the very end.

By the time I picked up Lethal Spice (on the recommendation of a well-read Twitter pal), Ms. Swati Kaushal, already had published three well-liked books Piece of Cake, A Girl Like Me, and Drop Dead. This means that our beauty-with-brains protagonist, Superintendent of Police Niki Marwah had already been introduced in a previous book. People knew about her. But this one, my first, made me fall headlong in love with our heroine here. By no means unselfconscious about her good looks, Niki is certainly not a petite damsel moping in the absence of her chef-boyfriend who is temporarily away and ‘out of the picture’. Having worked her way up the echelons of the Himachal Pradesh Police by sheer dint of merit, SP Marwah is capable of holding her own in a man’s world and surviving on steaming mugs of elaichi chai and gulab jamuns.

Now here comes the spicy bit – the book opens to a dramatic murder during the live screening of Hot Chef, the latest reality show where six finalists are vying to hit the jackpot. Right in the middle of taping a live episode, the beautiful judge – Mala Joseph – drops dead. No less than cyanide poisoning. Expertly navigating the reader through a maze of police procedures, Ms. Kaushal takes us to the chase to nail the culprit.

Before I go on to the rest, I must talk of the one element that impressed me most – Ms. Kaushal’s fantastic ability to detail out the settings. From the touch and feel of Shimla autumns to the wilderness and jungles of central India, right down to the smallest nuances that make Niki’s colleagues, the contestants, and the judges what they are. The attention paid to supporting characters – the young and tech-savvy ASP Sahay, the determined and efficient Inspector Deepika, rags-to-riches Leena, rebellious Vicky, sultry Sharon, talented Pallavi, persevering Dev, and quick-learner Shaq – is both fascinating and serves to heighten the intrigue. The life of the judges – the celebrity victim Mala Joseph, Kemaal Kapoor a.k.a. KK of Kemaal’s Kebabs fame, and green tea sipping actress Ashika De – go to reveal the depth of Ms. Kaushal’s cultural insight.

As one would expect of a book called Lethal Spice, food is at the heart of the story. While it serves to tease the gastronomic senses of the readers, it has not been overemphasized. I read a digital version of the book but I hear that the print version comes with a pack of spices and a warning that claims it could be lethal!

Chick lit they’re calling the genre – not a term that goes well with me. In Lethal Spice, SP Marwah, far from being an arrogant feminist, still looks up to her long-distance boyfriend for her dose of flowers. And the focus is far more on the crime, suspects, and victim, than on the sleuth. Like it should be in any good crime fiction.

Our verdict – Go ahead and grab it. You’ll love the food talk, the adventure, the sordid reality of reality shows, and the world of the young and adventurous. Following this read, I picked up two of Ms. Kaushal’s other books. Fine books they are but Lethal Spice tops them all. And oh, if action is what you like in your crime fiction, there’s enough of that too.