Friday 22 December 2017

The Bankster, by Ravi Subramanian

A few thoughts on Ravi Subramanian’s The Bankster

So Ravi Subramanian’s been called The John Grisham of Banking in India, and it is easy to see why with this book (my first read of his works). The story, featuring two parallel threads, tracks (a) an idealistic man driven to protest against a nuclear plant in South India, and (b) corruption and murder (or is it?) in a high-profile private bank in Mumbai. Subramanian uses his insider’s knowledge of the banking field to great effect here, laying out the daily routine of the employees of a bank, and the various functions like HR, Enforcement, Relationship managers, and so on. But several employees are dying mysteriously, just as they stumble upon some sort of nefarious plot. Can our hero, Karan Panjabi, figure out what’s going on before the next victim dies?

Subramanian does a neat job of creating a complex conspiracy that spans continents, while being tied to current events. The investigator, Karan Panjabi (a recurring character, I think), is smart, and the clues are well placed even if overexplained at times. There is some misdirection and a surprise at the end. The writing is smooth. But somehow, the book feels a little lifeless. Why is that?

It took me a while of thinking over this to figure it out. With apologies to Mr. Subramanian, I will now proceed to spoil the story in the process of dissecting it.

The criminal plot that is revealed over the course of the book is this: There’s a shadowy company in Vienna that’s working for the interests of Israeli defense. They recruit a few guys in India to (a) finance agitations in India, and (b) open accounts in corporate sector banks in Mumbai and whitewash money through these accounts, through planted bank officials. When a few people start to suspect these accounts, they get killed.

Even then, I’m oversimplifying here - there are quite a few pieces to this conspiracy, and not everything is revealed, either. Ideally, the people involved should make a formidable foe - they can get people killed in India and Europe, they have presence in three continents, they possess millions!

Now what are the evidences of their evil power? They kill four people over the course of the story, all of them related to the bank, who started suspecting there was something wrong. It is nearly halfway through the book that their nemesis, Karan Panjabi, shows up on the scene.

Karan’s entire role is limited to sitting in one room for 2 days and gathering evidence through phone calls and interviews, much like a Poirot of old. At the end, in fact, he literally assembles several important characters, calls the police, and lays out the entire plot. The Poirot comparison is even more pronounced.

If you see the way the bad guys operate, as compared to the way the good guy works, the reason for the weirdness becomes clear: the former is a thriller novel standard, while the latter is a cozy detective novel trope. In a pure thriller novel (say the Jack Reacher books), the bad guys are in motion all through, doing things, chasing Reacher, trying to kill him, changing their methods, and so on. The story is revealed through action. Even in a forensic thriller like the Lincoln Rhyme books, Rhyme’s agents who do the legwork for him are actively in conflict with the bad guy. To take this pattern to The Bankster, you’d expect Karan to get attacked on his way to the office, maybe for his home to ransacked, or maybe for him to have to make a dangerous journey to a nearby town to meet the most important witness.

None of that happens. All the clues he needs are available to him for the asking. He has people to fetch him anything he asks for. He never feels threatened at a personal level. When the culprit is caught, there is no debate on the truth of the revelation. This doesn’t even belong to a thriller novel.

And that - the two halves of the book being from different genres - is the reason IMHO for the feeling of something missing.

I think this critical analysis has taught me more than I expected about writing :).

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