Origins of Love, By Kishwar Desai

Sleuth Singh pursues the baby-makers

Kishwar Desai won the Costa First Novel award in 2010 for Witness the Night, an engrossing and electrifying detective story which laid bare the horrific fates that can befall unwanted female children in India, and officialdom's complicity in their plight. Now, in Origins of Love, her social worker-cum-sleuth heroine Simran Singh returns, this time to examine the murky but multi-billion-dollar child surrogacy industry.

Singh, a feisty fortysomething of independent means, is a very attractive character: fond (perhaps too fond) of a cigarette and a whisky, she doesn't care whom she shocks by her refusal to conform to traditional Indian notions of appropriate female behaviour and comportment. She provokes despair in her mother by refusing to settle down, engaging in a series of unsuitable love affairs instead, but once on the scent, she is unflagging in pursuit of those who mistreat, abuse and exploit the millions of voiceless women of India.

Singh's investigations start when Amelia, a surrogate baby at the New Delhi clinic run by her cousin and her husband, is unexpectedly born HIV-positive. How, and at what point in the process, has the child been infected? The trail takes Singh to London, where she meets Edward, a wealthy commitment-phobe who donates his sperm to women either mechanically or "naturally". Is he, or –someone else, behind an attempt to kill her? And is that attempt connected to the "accident" that claimed the lives of Amelia's British parents, Mike and Sue, shortly after her birth? As the industry, and its as yet illegal but potentially enormously lucrative offshoot – the use of foetal stem cells – grows in India, to which flock Western couples drawn by the low prices, there is no shortage of interested parties with reason to want to stop Singh and her meddling.

Along the way she deals with corrupt customs officials, religious hate groups, unscrupulous fixers, ambitious politicians, and Dalits driven to desperate acts by the misery and poverty to which their "untouchable" status condemns them. As compelling as the stories of George Simenon's Maigret, Desai's Simran Singh novels are endowed with something else: the sense that she is delving not just into mysteries but into subjects that matter deeply. I cannot wait for her next adventure.