Review: The Sea of Innocence, By Kishwar Desai

Trouble in paradise for Simran Singh
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This is the third outing for Simran Singh, the Indian social worker-cum-reluctant sleuth whom Kishwar Desai introduced in her Costa First Novel Award-winning Witness the Night in 2010, and it is a pleasure to find Singh both as careless of convention – shamelessly knocking back bottles of beer and tucking into the fags at any time of the day – and as deeply concerned about the plight of women in the subcontinent as ever.

Inveigled once again into undertaking dangerous investigations by her distinctly compromised senior police officer ex-boyfriend, Amarjit, this time Singh delves into the seamy underbelly of Goa's beaches, idyllic stretches of sand on which many Westerners choose to take their pleasure but around which too many women, both local and tourist, are taken against their will.

Intent on a holiday in the former Portuguese colony, Singh is alerted, first by Amarjit and then by a mysterious contact, to the plight of a young white girl, increasingly sickening videos of whom are sent to her mobile phone. Quite where does she fit in to the close web of beach vendors, shack owners, drug dealers and local politicians? Is she still alive? And will Singh's persistent questioning lead her into some similar fate?

Desai is mistress of the twist and the shedding of veils in her narrative until the gruesome truths of her tale are finally revealed. The references to Scarlett Keeling, the British teenager who was raped and murdered in Goa in 2008, are not surprising –the locations and lifestyle are clearly inspired by her case. What adds even greater urgency is the appearance of the gang rape and subsequent death of a young medical student in Delhi last December, events which Desai felt she could not omit (including details so horrific that most newspapers didn't print them).

Perhaps it is this combination, of the all-too-human heroine (and, actually, hooray that this detective series features a likeable and physically real heroine rather than yet another middle-aged misanthropic male) with her work, which unflinchingly uncovers almost unfathomably dark aspects of human behaviour, that makes the Simran Singh books so compelling. Singh is supposed to be in her forties, so she should have at least a couple of decades of sleuthing in her – her increasing army of fans must certainly hope so.