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Six Suspects, By Vikas Swarup

Exposé fails to open a passage into the real India

If a Martian sent a postcard from urban India after watching the country's highly competitive television channels, he might focus on its crime. A wealthy industrialist gets away after crushing people, asleep while he drove; an irate rich brat at a bar guns down an attractive hostess who refuses to serve him that last drink; or a Bollywood star shoots a rare animal and, when prosecuted, wonders what the fuss is all about.

Put these scandals – all real – together in one dislikeable character, Vicky Rai. Have him murdered, and create six suspects, each with a motive. There's a corrupt bureaucrat who claims to have become Mohandas Gandhi, India's founding father; a US tourist who thinks he is about to marry a pen-friend, not knowing what lies ahead; an Onge tribesman who tries to recover a stolen relic; a superficial Bollywood sex goddess who quotes Sartre; a thief who steals mobile phones and finds himself mired in something bigger than he can handle; and a politician who will stoop as low as needed to conquer (he is Rai's father). Each character has a weapon: a British Webley & Scott, an Austrian Glock, a German Walther PPK, an Italian Beretta, a Chinese Black Star pistol and a locally improvised katta – perhaps a comment on India's rapid globalisation.

If our Martian friend wrote all that, you might commend his grasp of a new language and his interest in an alien culture. But Vikas Swarup, who has written this curiosity described as a novel, is an Indian diplomat who has already published one successful novel, Q & A. Six Suspects does not need Hercule Poirot, because the crimes Swarup draws on are real, and he does not sufficiently fictionalise them to make them interesting.

Urban India may seem superficial, but it can be fascinating, and a roman-à-clef can be charming. Shobhaa De, India's bestselling novelist, has documented the racy reality of its upper class for nearly two decades. And Salman Rushdie magically transforms urban events into mythical drama. Six Suspects does none of this. It pretends to be an exposé of what Indian newspapers call "page-three celebrities", a fully-clothed urban élite whose lives revolve around parties. But the plot is thin, the language insipid and abounding with clichés. And what about the six characters? They are in search of an author. They remain cardboard cut-outs.