An exciting and in depth look at one of India's first legal thriller authors as presented by staff reviewer Narayan Radhakrishnan
P. Parameswaran Nair is one of the first legal thriller authors from India. Though legal themed stories existed in Indian literature since 300 BC, it was Parameswaran Nair who first used it to good use in the thriller/ mystery genre. The author had his first book published in the early Sixties- and for two decades Parameswaran Nair steadily wrote….and wrote. Since the early Nineties Parameswaran Nair retired from active thriller writing and is now living a quiet retired life.
Parameswaran Nair is best known for his Attorney Stewart Sangster – Detective Sam Laxter series of novels. The author is quick to admit that the series was inspired by Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason series- which he religiously followed in his youth. I had the good fortune to catch up with this unassuming, introvert author, wherein we discussed about Stewart Sangster and future literary plans of the author.
Fiction (English) The Case of the Spookish Spouse (1961) The Case of the Innocent Accomplice,(1963) The Case of the Traveling Toxin, (1969) The Case of the Peeled Onions (1974) The Case of the Mousy Manager, (1981) The Case of the Broken Belt (1983), Malayalam: (Selected- featuring only Sam Laxter) Enikkum Oru Chance (Give Me A Chance) 1977, Japamala (The Holy Necklace) 1978, Locker, 1979, Oppinu Udippu Veenooo (A Cover for the Signature) 1980, Kariyilakku Kopam Vannal (If the Leaves Get Angry) 1982.
Narayan: Thank you for sparing your time for this interview. My first question- how come you turned to writing- and that too thriller writing- a genre quiet unknown to Indian literature?
Nair: My privilege to be with you. Well… I turned to thriller writing simply because I enjoy reading thrillers. In my youth, in the early Fifties, I religiously followed each and every Perry Mason work by Erle Stanley Gardner. The more I read, the more inspiration I got to write a novel in the style of Gardner. You can say that Gardner influenced, inspired me and even urged me to write thrillers.
Narayan: You said “urged”- how did Gardner urge you to write?
Nair: Gardner indeed did urge me to write. After finishing my second thriller The Case of the Innocent Accomplice- a perfect Perry Mason pastiche- but set in India, and of course with abundance on Indian English phrases- you can even see the Indian English in the titles- “Mousy, Spookish” etc- I hesitatingly sent a copy to the great author seeking his blessings. Gardner replied- gave me his blessings and urged me to write more and more. The result is 13 novels- 6 in English, 7 in Malayalam. My novels are a homage, a tribute to the great Master and if anyone mentions me and Gardner in the same sentence…I am happy. . my day is made.
Narayan: A standard question in any layer novelist interview- did your legal background help you in any way in writing these novels?
Nair: Narayan, I don’t think you can compare me to a lawyer novelist of the traditional sense of the phrase. My law practice started in December 1958 and ended in December 1958. I am a unique advocate…. a lawyer who has never entered a court of law. (laughs) And I have never referred to myself as an Advocate ever. Many do not know that I had studied law. You see, my passion was writing. I wanted to write thrillers- and when I mused over the same for a long, long time- I decided that my protagonist should be a lawyer, and that there should be heavy courtroom drama. For this specific purpose, I studied law. And possibly you might call me the one and only person who studied law just for writing courtroom dramas. I think legal thriller, the term you frequently use is of more recent origin. In the Sixties and Seventies, we used the term courtroom drama.
I guess my novels do portray realistic courtroom scenes….but I would be the first to admit- I have taken “literary license” and sacrificed strict courtroom procedural details for heightening suspense.
Narayan: Yes, I agree, legal thriller is more of recent origin- it has a wider connotation in mystery genre than the phrase “courtroom drama”. I once again come to my earlier question- you were one of the first legal thriller writers in India- so why did you chose to write in English.
Nair: Am I the first legal thriller writer? Well, that’s new information for me- but I can definitely say that I am the first legal thriller writer from Kerala. I think lawyer Harsh Bahadur from Delhi also wrote some legal thrillers- but I don’t know whether he wrote it before me or after me…
Narayan: Harsh Bahadur wrote only one thriller- that was The Case of the Sprightly Widow- and it was in I977.
Nair: Then I guess, I must be the first- do I get any award or reward for that (laughter). Now coming back to your initial question- I decided to go for writing in English- because I was comfortable with the genre- and most courtroom action can be better expressed in English rather than Malayalam or Hindi or Tamil. As a lawyer yourself, you should know- India still follows the common law court system- our law including the Penal Code, Law of Evidence and Criminal Procedure Code are British made laws- and so I felt that I would be more comfortable in English. It was a huge risk I took- in the Sixties there were few thriller writers around and fewer thriller writers who wrote in English, and even more fewer English writers in Kerala. Indo- Angolan literature was at its infancy. By heaven’s grace, everything worked out fine. But, I have also written 7 thrillers in Malayalam- which do no feature Stewart Sangster and which do not have courtroom action. Sam Laxter is the solo hero – and I wrote the same respecting the wishes of some of my readers who requested me to write to Malayalam. These books are simple whodunits.
Narayan: I was intrigued by your choice of names for the protagonists- Stewart Sangster and Sam Laxter. How come you chose these…. these totally un-Indian sounding names- while the rest of the characters, plotting etc. are set in the courtrooms of India.
Nair: I have both been commended and mercilessly criticized for my choice of names. For me these two names have a “crispy feeling”… a sort of heroic ring to it and I chose the same. Sam Laxter actually was the name of a character who appeared in a Perry Mason book…I think it was The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat….and Stewart Sangster….well, Stewart Granger was my favorite movie star- need I explain more.
Narayan: No need… I understand perfectly. Other than Erle Stanley Gardner, rather Perry Mason, did any other author or character influence you?
Nair: No one in particular. I used to read Agatha Christie and Dashielle Hammett- but the real person who influenced me was the great lawyer Malloor Govinda Pillai. In the early part of this century he was the leading criminal lawyer of Kerala and his courtroom exploits were legendary. There was in fact a popular saying going around in that time that- “if you had Rs. 10,000/- and Malloor in hand you can kill anybody”. Malloor’s associate, Advocate Parameswaran Pillai- a namesake of mine- was my uncle. He used to narrate to me various cases Malloor had tried and his courtroom exploits really influenced me.
Narayan: Do you read the current crop of legal thrillers- like that of John Grisham or Scott Turow?
Nair: No… No…. I have read The Firm by John Grisham and also seen the movie Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow. That’s it. Frankly, it was only through you and your book A Fiction of Law that I came to know about Lisa Scottoline, Steve Martini, Richard North Patterson etc. I am still at home with old Perry Mason. I own quite a good collection- and have read- re-read, and re-re-read the same. I do not have the patience to read the current lawyer authors. I am an old man, and my tastes are quiet different from that of your generation.
Narayan: You have been silent in the thriller field for the past 15- 17 years. Any particular reason?
Nair: Simple- the answer lies in The Case of the Broken Belt. After giving Laxter and Sangster a good run in13 odd mysteries (6 in English- 7 in Malayalam) I decided to do an Arthur Conan Doyle- and decided to kill off….not Laxter or Sangster… but myself. (Laughs) In The Case of the Broken Belt I portray myself as one of the characters and asks Laxter whether he can solve the crime I had committed- I just say that I have committed a crime- what, where, who, why- etc., Laxter will have to find it out and prove it. Laxter succeeds- but before he can arrest Parameswaran Nair (the character) he kills himself. So how will the series continue without the author (again laughs). But on a serious note- now I am having second thoughts- let us see- just wait…..
Narayan: Your books have been popular in India and in particular in Kerala itself. Have you thought of an international market for your books?
Nair: I am a small man- as you can see (laughs) both in stature and ambitions. When I first started writing the books, my only prayer was that at least a hundred copies should be sold out. That wish came true- the books sold well, running into numerous editions. I am happy and contented. I wrote the books keeping in mind the Indian readers and that’s it.
Narayan: In these days of emails computers and websites…
Nair: Narayan, I don’t know how to work emails or internet; or for that matter to use computers. I am an ollllllllllld man, Narayan. For me- I am perfectly at ease with the ollllllllllllld Remington typewriter- I bought it in the Fifties…I still use it, though frugally. Narayan, I am a person who was a born in a small village in the outskirts of Trivandrum. Though I moved to the City, I still remain an old rustic villager at heart- with small ambitions. Let me continue with my quite, simple and sedate life.
Narayan: Now you said that Sangster- Laxter might make a comeback. Can you elaborate more on that?
Nair: I am thinking about that. But the Sangster- Laxter combination now will have to address a more technologically advanced society, and criminals of a different nature. The world has changed a lot since the early Eighties. I have not yet decided. I always feel misfit as a thriller author by present day standards. Sangster books were read by a generation of Sixties to Seventies. I don’t know whether the present generation- what to do you call it- Generation X or Generation Y- would appreciate it as much as the earlier. Again, there is one problem. I died in The Case of Broken Belt (laughs). Hmmm…., Sangster will have to find his own Thomas Chastain to continue the series, as Perry Mason did. (laughs). The planning is still in my head. Stewart Sangster was not featured in The Case of the Broken Belt. Sometimes he might uncover something … some mysterious secret…or…. which might result in my resurrection. Then again, I am working on it. Whatever be, the plotline will have to contain some semblance of a possibility. I should not be ridiculed for thinking up some ludicrous ideas…. Lets wait…
Narayan: So as of now is it goodbye writing- and are you on a long siesta.
Nair: No I have not quit writing. Just the areas of interest have changed. For about 15 years I did some small dramas for the local radio station- it was well received- though many complained that the dramas were not thrillers. Now I am on work on my autobiography- in Malayalam. Then there is going to be a collection of poems – in Malayalam. Soon the Complete Sam Laxter- Stewart Sangster series will be published in four volumes. The first is The Case of the Spookish Spouse. The second volume will contain five Sangster- Laxter novels including The Case of the Innocent Accomplice, The Case of the Traveling Toxin, The Case of the Peeled Onions, The Case of the Mousy Manager and The Case of the Broken Belt. The third and fourth volumes will contain the seven Sam Laxter works written in Malayalam.
Narayan: So looking back at your literary career so far, how do you feel?
Nair: I am happy… happy that my books gained recognition- though I never thought that I would be one of the exponents of legal thriller writing in India. The greatest recognition for me was of course the letter from Erle Stanley Gardner, which I religiously keep safe… and a commendation from the great literature critic, “Sahithyavarabhalam” Krishnan Nair, who once referred to Stewart Sangster as Perry Mason of India. What more do I need.
Narayan: Thank You Mr. Nair. It was a great experience talking with you.
Nair: Thank you.
REVIEW: THE CASE OF THE SPOOKISH SPOUSE
Publishers/ printers: Karmabhoomi Press, Trivandrum, 1961 (reprint 1969, 1987, 1993, 1999, 2000, 2006)
The Case of the Spookish Spouse heralded a new era in contemporary Indo – Angolan writing. Sure, there were authors who delved in writing in English including R. K. Narayan, Nirad Chowdhary etc., but it was for the first time a thriller was written by an Indian in English. This book was first published in 1961- a time when the pocket books by Perry Mason and Mickey Spillane ruled the roost in India. And when a book styled as a thriller written by a person without a “western sounding name” it marked a new era in Indian thriller writing. The first edition of this book was released and published in the same style as that of Perry Mason work.
Though by modern day standards, the plot line and plot setting seems ordinary- the novel was a huge hit when it was first published. In short Spookish Spouse is the story of three suspicious deaths…and two corpses. With twists double twists and triple twists, culminating in a courtroom showdown- the novel proves to be an exciting read. However, I must also warn the reader- this is a Sixties novel and don’t expect the thrills and finesse as seen in modern day mystery thriller books. The author had clubbed the horror, psychological and the legal thriller genre in this book…catering to everyone’s taste.
In the end, I must say- the importance of Spookish Spouse does not lie in its plot or story narration, but simply in the historical importance attached to it.
REVIEW: THE CASE OF THE INNOCENT ACCOMPLICE
Publishers/ printers: Karmabhoomi Press, Trivandrum, 1963 (reprint 1969, 1987, 1993, 1999, 2000, 2006)
The Case of the Innocent Accomplice is the best novel written by the author and easily the most popular novel of the 6 English thrillers written by the author. In this book we see a more confident author- gone is hesitancy felt in Spookish Spouse.. …gone is the element of doubt- Spookish Spouse sure made Nair a confident author- and that confidence…that brashness is clearly revealed in the second novel by the legal thriller doyen of India.
Without bothering to dabble in every genre, without bothering to cater to the needs of each reader- the author straight away chooses that genre which he is most comfortable with- of course the legal thriller genre. And attorney at law Stewart Sangster, who had only a secondary position in Spookish Spouse- comes to vibrant life in this the second novel. In the foreword itself the author admits that the character Stewart Sangster is based on two persons, one Perry Mason himself and the other a great criminal lawyer of Kerala, Malloor Govinda Pillai. The first forty odd pages is devoted to the crime and the arrest of the most obvious accused- and the rest of the novel spends its time in the courtroom where Stewart Sangster defends the accused on charges of murder. The steadfast formula of the author- (Inspector Sam Laxter arresting the most obvious person, Sangster getting him of…and later Laxter finding the real culprit) makes a start with this book.
If you are a connoisseur of courtroom dramas- the Case of the Innocent Accomplice is a must read. And though legal thrillers have been written by other authors in India, after Nair…I don’t think there are any legal thrillers which has logged more courtroom action than The Case of the Innocent Accomplice. A grand read and a real worthy buy.
REVIEW: THE CASE OF THE TRAVELING TOXIN
Publishers/ printers: Karmabhoomi Press, Trivandrum, 1969 (reprint 1987, 1993, 1999, 2000, 2006)
The Case of the Traveling Toxin has an interesting publication history. Though the author had initially wanted it to be published as a short story- along with The Case of the Peeled Onions, the publishers decided to give the two stories, independent existence as separate books…as novelettes. Thus the two short works were published separately. And at around 70 pages, the story is a fast and easy read.
The first page takes the reader straight to the centre of action- where ace attorney Stewart Sangster is defending one Varadarajan stands accused of killing his uncle, a businessman by name Subramoni. The accused died by poisoning. Inspector Sam Laxter who had been called to investigate had charged Varadarajan with the crime. However, the dexterous cross-examination of Sam Laxter, at the hands of Sangster leaves no room for doubt that the real accused could be anyone but Varadarajan. And like always Sangster secures a verdict of Not Guilty…leaving the prosecutor Moorthy fuming. However, Laxter decides to reinvestigate- and his investigation reveals that the deceased had received a letter on the date of death with a self- addressed return envelope- SPOILER ALERT (reading from this point onwards will affect the suspense). The poison it seems was pasted along the flap of the return envelope. And as soon as Subramoni licked the envelope and pasted it…the end was inevitable- and the ‘weapon of crime’ reached back the perpetrator. Possibly the perfect and most ingenious crime of the decade.
This book was written in 1969. In 2001-02, there was a real life incident where anthrax powder which came by mail resulted in the death of many. In fact in India, there was an incident in which a hi-fi political leader almost becoming the victim of such anthrax poisoning. The fiction had become a fact. One grand read- and this reprint- which is part of The Complete Stewart Sangster- Sam Laxter Collection is one welcome read.
REVIEW: THE CASE OF THE MOUSY MANAGER
Publishers/ printers: Karmabhoomi Press, Trivandrum, 1981 (reprint 1987, 1993, 1999, 2000, 2006)
After a long hiatus Parameswaran Nair gave Stewart Sangster a grand and triumphant courtroom showdown with The Case of the Mousy Manager. The novel starts with a death…a death in an ancestral Christian family in Kerala. A second death in the same family seemingly unconnected follows. And the only person who suspects that something is fishy is Mahadevan, the devoted manager of the first among the deceased. He decides to peep into the matter and he was caught at the wrong place at the wrong time- the result he is murdered. And the evidence points to Charles Stephen, a man with whom Mahadevan was last seen in the company with.
Now enters Sam Laxter and with evidence pointing towards Charles Stephen and no others- it seems to be a open and shut case. And soon the case reaches the court. Moorthy, the Public Prosecutor is confident of a big verdict of guilty and also is relishing the chance to get even with his old nemesis and adversary...none other than Stewart Sangster- Attorney-at- law. And Sangster though is facing an uphill task is confident. He has just one simple theory- too much evidence in one direction means that the evidence is fabricated. And the deft and skillful cross-examination of the key prosecution witness leaves the prosecutor breathless and the element of doubt slowly creeps into the mind of the judge. And soon the verdict follows- Not Guilty. Though Charles Stephen is freed…the real killer looms large- and now Sam Laxter (who was crucified in the hands of Sangster), decides to reinvestigate. What follows is the expected unexpected twist in the end, which leaves the reader- astounded.
The suspense is superb and the plotting fast paced. And the only complaint I have is- why haven’t anyone turned this book into a movie. Is Mollywood/ Bollywood taking notice?? ???