Six Suspects reads a little like when a child takes action figures from different toy lines and forces them to occupy the same imaginary universe, but author Vikas Swarup mostly saves it via his presentation of India as the ultimate land of seduction. Everything in the country tantalizingly wins over even its most skeptical visitors, from the bustle of its slums to the bright colors of its streets.
Swarup wrote Q&A, the novel that became Slumdog Millionaire, and Suspects shares many of that book’s faults and strengths. The characters are paper-thin; Swarup has never met a character cliché he couldn’t lean on. The plot, revolving around the six loosely connected lives of the suspects in a high-profile murder investigation, is similarly predictable. The balance between high-level political machination (where an all-dialogue style proves slightly beyond Swarup’s abilities), supernatural hoohah, and a Slumdog-esque tale of forbidden romance leaves the impression that these characters shouldn’t be playing in the same sandbox.
Similarly, the book’s mystery elements are fairly undercooked. The murder victim is such a transparently bad guy that it’s unbelievable he hadn’t been killed already. The resolution of the mystery is strained as well, as Swarup suddenly jumps out of the lives of the characters we’ve cared about, and into a too-omniscient third-person perspective.
But Six Suspects is a hell of a compelling read anyway. It’s enjoyably propulsive, moving along faster than readers can work up objections. The story of an American tourist, a walking, talking example of ugly Americanism who often seems like Swarup leaning on the satire button too heavily, is a good case in point: Larry comes to India to meet the girl he found through a mail-order-bride service, only to learn she’s a movie star, and he’s been had. But he sticks around, gets to know the city and country, gets a job, and meets people. The more time he spends in India, the more he comes to love it. These passages, when Swarup is describing the land he so obviously adores, throb with a passion and zest that slides past everything clumsy in the novel. While Swarup’s character-building skills could use work, and his intricate plot structures sometimes get the best of him, the way he evokes India’s over-the-top existence in the fashion of a Bollywood epic is second to none.