Reviewed by Minakhi Misra
A college student axes three of his friends during a jungle party and goes missing afterwards. A schoolteacher locks a classroom full of students and murders eleven of them in cold blood, only to have his own head blown off by a sniper. The leader of the militant outfit that claims responsibility for the sniping operation dies the next day in his own building.
These deaths make up just the twenty opening pages of India’s first crowd-sourced and crowd-curated novel. Debutant author Uday Satpathy’s Brutal is the first book to shine out of Rashmi Bansal’s trailblazing publishing venture Bloody Good Book, and it is quite literally “bloody” and “good” to its core.
A book that seems to subscribe to the edict of “Valar Morghulis”, Brutal takes us on a high-adrenaline chase from one dangerous secret to another, revealing layers upon layers of organised crime and vanity noir. The narration and style are so grippingly matter-of-fact that it makes it very difficult for a reader to miss the all-men-must-die paradigm of justice prevailing in the criminal underbelly of the Indian subcontinent.
The story progresses when Prakash and Seema, two ace journalists emotionally broken by events in their recent past, stumble upon connecting links between the sniper killings and the other deaths. Both follow different threads of investigation, sinking to depths they are afraid to fathom. All the while, they get ambushed, beaten up, fired upon, kidnapped, rescued, chased and ambushed again by powerful people who want their secrets safe.
Through the shifting third person points of view, the story unfolds quite like a “two-sided jigsaw puzzle. When one side looks perfectly assembled, the opposite side is hopelessly jumbled”. Revelations from one character’s chapter builds a picture in the reader’s mind, only to be quickly altered by information received from another character’s chapter. It is only in the end, when the reader puts together everything they have seen from the different chapters, does the whole story reveal its essence.
In a way, Brutal is a story of people whose ambitions take them well beyond their boundaries of safety and comfort. We have reporters who would risk their all to get a story they might not live to cover. We have the leader of a jihadi organisation who doesn’t shy away from making a Faustian contract with forces far darker than he can imagine. We have a professional assassin who wants to leave no trail behind him once he retires into a life of quietude. And we also have the quintessential prodigal son who is desperate to come out of the shadow of his all-powerful father to rule an empire founded on twisted arms and closeted skeletons. Brutal manages to take us along with all of them, weaving a plot that ends with each one of these characters getting what they want and yet, getting nothing at all.
One has to admit that some readers of the crime thriller genre may suggest that Brutal follows the same formulaic storyline as most of Robert Ludlum’s works. There is a small group of crusading individuals, in a struggle against powerful adversaries whose intentions and motivations are evil and who are capable of using political and economic mechanisms in frightening ways. To be honest, though he does seem to follow the above formula, the twists and episode cliffhangers do have an originality to them, from which (if one may dare say so) some of the crime-thriller movies could benefit significantly. For once, the author does not try to force in a hero-saves-the-damsel-in-distress sequence. There is a lot of distress, no doubt, but both Prakash and Seema seem to get themselves out of them quite on their own, occasionally with a big helping hand from old-fashioned luck. It is quite commendable that the author remains true to the professionalism of the characters.
The author has also shown prudence in keeping the chapters short and crisp. No doubt it makes the paperback nigh unputdownable, but it does so much more for someone reading the book on a digital device like a Kindle or a smartphone. When the message at the bottom of the screen says “Time left in chapter: 3 minutes only”, the reader gets the feeling that they might as well read this one chapter before checking the notification that popped up from some other app. The “just one more” effect of 9GAG and Vine works so well for this book.
Well researched and well paced, Brutal shows the early signs of being this year’s favourite in the crime thriller genre. For someone who enjoys suspense and high-adrenaline scenes, peppered with a lot of brutal deaths, this is the best weekend read they can look forward to in August.
Minakhi Misra is an IIMAvericks Fellow and a Consulting Editor with Bloody Good Book.