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Literature / Six Suspects

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"Murder may be messy, but the truth is messier. Tying up loose ends will be difficult, I know. The life histories of all six suspects will need to be combed. Motives will have to be established. Evidence will need to be collated. And only then will we discover the real culprit. Which of these six will it be? The bureaucrat or the bimbo? The foreigner or the tribal? The big fish or the small fry? All I can tell my readers at this point in time is — watch this space."
Arun Advani's column covering the murder case

Six Suspects is the second novel by Vikas Swarup. Seven years ago, Vivek "Vicky" Rai, the playboy son of the Home Minister of Uttar Pradesh, murdered bartender Ruby Gill at a trendy restaurant in New Delhi, simply because she refused to serve him a drink. Now Vicky Rai has been killed at the party he was throwing to celebrate his acquittal. The police recover six guests with guns in their possession: Mohan Kumar, a corrupt bureaucrat who claims to have become Mahatma Gandhi; Larry Page, a dim-witted American tourist infatuated with an Indian actress; Eketi, an Onge tribesman on a quest to recover a sacred stone; Shabnam Saxena, a renowned Bollywood actress; Munna, a mobile-phone thief who dreams big; and Vicky Rai's own father, Jagannath Rai, an ambitious politician prepared to stoop low. The book slowly unravels the lives and motives of the six suspects, before revealing which is the killer.


The book includes examples of:

  • Anonymous Killer Narrator: The Reveal at the end is written by Vicky Rai's killer. They don't reveal their name, but it's made obvious in the last few paragraphs that it's Arun Advani, the reporter who was covering the case.
  • Asshole Victim:
    • Vicky Rai will not be missed, except maybe by his family members.
    • It's hard to feel bad about Mukhtar either, despite his Pet the Dog moment revealed near the end.
  • Astral Projection: Nokai, the Onge tribe's medicine man, uses it to discover the location of the stolen shivling.
  • Badass Native: Eketi.
  • Bad Boss: Mohan is abusive to basically everybody, and disgustingly so to his Yes-Man chauffeur, Brijlal.
  • Bittersweet Ending:
    • On the one hand, Vicky Rai is dead; Jagannath Rai is "as good as dead"; Arun Advani's open letter has sparked changes for the better; Larry is returning to the US with $15 million in his pocket and a beautiful Indian actress on his arm; Munna and Ritu have gotten their picture-perfect happy ending; and funds have been raised for Champi's surgery.
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    • On the other hand, Eketi is dead (though apparently his spirit visits Champi every night, so there's that); it seems unlikely that the shivling will make it back to the Onge tribe before misfortune kills them off, if ever; Shabnam is forced to give up her fame and identity as well as marry an idiot (granted, he's a filthy rich idiot, a pretty nice guy, and apparently resembles Michael J. Fox, but he's still frighteningly stupid); three characters have been wrongly charged with murder — though YMMV on how bad this is, as Ashok is still guilty of attempted murder and is an all-round asshole, while Ram Dulari and Bhola have destroyed Shabnam's life and reputation; India might never know that Shabnam wasn't the one who appeared in the sex tapes or killed Mukhtar; Mohan is still an asshole, and apparently still possessed — possibly by Ruby Gill again, but maybe even by Vicky Rai; and we have no idea what ultimately happened to poor Brijlal or his daughter.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: While there are one or two characters who are almost unerringly good, most of the "good" characters are still morally ambiguous in some way, whether due to crime, Dirty Business, or personal flaws. They are basically good people who are making the best of a world where sometimes you have to be willing to play dirty to get by. And next to the rapists, serial killers, and extortionists that comprise the villains' circle, they look like saints.
  • Bollywood: One of the suspects is a Bollywood actress.
  • Brainless Beauty: Subverted with Shabnam Saxena. She's the only female suspect, she's beautiful, and she's an actress, so you'd expect this trope to be in full force. But quite to the contrary, her journal entries are very eloquent, erudite, and reflective. She downplays her intelligence in public so as not to intimidate her fanbase, but on one occasion she can't resist brilliantly tearing into an interviewer who calls her a "brainless bimbo".
    Rosie: Be prepared, Stardust will now nickname you Dr Shabnam Ph.D.
    • Larry plays this somewhat straight: After losing weight, he bears quite a resemblance to Michael J. Fox — and he's dumber than all the bags of hammers in the world.
  • Briefcase Full of Money: Munna's story kicks into high gear when he finds one.
  • Captain Obvious: When someone lamenting America's moral corruption asks Larry if American girls are really having sex as young as 10 years old, Larry says that he'd have to ask his niece, since she's 10 and she's a girl. Who would have guessed?
  • Celebrity Resemblance:
    • Larry mentions near the beginning of his first chapter, that his niece says he would look just like Michael J. Fox...if he were a couple inches taller, 50 pounds lighter, and his hair were a bit darker. It sounds like his niece is just being generous, but then at Vicky Rai's party near the end of the novel, at which point Larry has in fact lost 50 pounds, someone asks if he's Michael J. Fox.
    • When Munna goes shopping for new clothes, while admiring himself in the mirror he compares himself to Salim Ilyasi. Apparently this comparison is not unfounded, because near the end of the novel, film director Jay Chatterjee hires him on the spot for a role that he couldn't get Salim Ilyasi to fill.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • The fact that Larry Page shares his name with the inventor of Google causes more than one misunderstanding — including one that leads to him being kidnapped and held for ransom by Al Qaeda terrorists.
    • In Q & A, you get to have fun figuring out what detail of each story will turn out to be the Chekhov's Gun that helps Ram answer the hitherto unrevealed question. In Six Suspects, you get to have fun figuring out which detail will end up snowballing into a motive for killing Vicky Rai, since they all either have only a tenuous connection with him, no connection with him, or no apparent reason to want him dead — usually right up to the final pages of their "Motive" chapter.
  • Continuity Nod: Ram Mohammed Thomas and Salim Ilyasi are both mentioned — the latter more than once, as a prominent actor — showing that Six Suspects takes place in the same universe as Q & A, but some time later.
  • Corrupt Politician: Jagannath Rai, in spades.
  • Debut Queue: Each suspect is given a cursory introduction into their immediate backstory, before cycling through them again to depict the chain of events that led them to Vicky Rai's farmhouse with a gun and a motive for ending his life.
  • Dirty Business:
    • In this world, even the most upright characters sometimes have to engage in it.
    • When Eketi is arrested, a police inspector spends the better part of a day using violence and threats to extract the truth from him. When Eketi finally breaks down and tells his story, the inspector believes him, and openly admits that he only uses violence because "If you don't hit, you don't convict. We are forced to work this way. And then it becomes a bad habit, like chewing betel nut." His surprising kindness and honesty reveals that he is not an evil man. He's just a Punch-Clock Villain who has not been entirely immune to the corrupting influence of his work, but still looks for opportunities to fight the system, and lives for those rare moments where he feels like he has made a difference. Though he only appears for a few pages, he provides some of the most heartwarming and candid quotes in the book.
  • The Dog Bites Back: Brijlal finally reaches his breaking point and tries to kill Mohan.
  • Driving Question: "Who killed Vicky Rai, and why?" And then later, "How?"
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones:
    • Ashok sends money to pay for his nephew's education, despite having no obligation towards him. Might be partly to win Gulabo over, but he seems to genuinely care about the kid.
    • Mukhtar, known to the reader only for being a hitman and serial rapist, is so heartbroken and disillusioned after Jagannath Rai orders a hit on his own son, Vicky Rai, that he finally caves and calls the target because he can't bear to kill him.
      Mukhtar: I have seen you grow up in front of my eyes, Vicky baba. How can I take your life?
  • Everything Is Big in Texas: Larry is from Texas, and a fairly stereotypical mix of cheerful, friendly, crude, loud, and thick. For a Southerner though, he's rather lacking in Patriotic Fervor. "Rather lacking" in this case meaning "So ignorant about America that his best guess as to who wrote 'The Star-Spangled Banner' is Stevie Wonder."
  • Fee Fi Faux Pas: Against all contextual and even blatant textual clues, Larry mistakes a protest demanding compensation for the deformed children of industrial accident victims, for India's version of Hallowe'en. This does not go over well with them.
  • The Fool: Dear Lord, Larry. Dear Lord, Larry.
  • Funny Foreigner: Larry.
  • Horrible Judge of Character:
    • Eketi gets screwed over several times because he is completely ignorant of modern society and the kinds of unscrupulous bastards that live in it, happily preying on the unsuspecting.
    • Larry gets screwed over several times because he's a moron.
  • If It Bleeds, It Leads: The respective murders of Ruby Gill and Vicky Rai.
  • Innocent Inaccurate: The way Larry recounts his story often makes it painfully clear what's really going on in a situation, while he honestly has no idea until much later, if ever.
  • J'accuse!: Arun Advani's open letter at the end of the novel, thusly titled, and even compared on a breaking news segment to Émile Zola's famous letter.
  • Karma Houdini:
    • Whoever conned Larry Page never suffered any retribution (unless it was somehow Ram Dulari), and nor did the "investigator" who "confirmed" the letters were genuinely from Shabnam Saxena. And nor did Bilal for handing Larry over to Al Qaeda terrorists.
  • Karmic Death: The story begins with Vicky Rai finally getting what was coming to him after years of inveterate and highly publicized criminal activity, from white-collar crimes to multiple homicides. Then again, it's implied that his spirit is now possessing Mohan Kumar, so maybe he's still a Karma Houdini after all...
  • Laser-Guided Karma:
    • At first it seems that Bhola and Ram Dulari have gotten away with their massive con scot-free, but in the end the thoroughness of Ram's impersonation of Shabnam bites them in the ass, when the police discover evidence that ties Shabnam to Mukhtar's murder. Though they are innocent of this particular crime, their real crime is bad enough that it's hard to pity them.
    • Ashok Rajput ends up being charged with Vicky Rai's murder. Though he is in fact innocent, even he probably doesn't know that, and he did attempt it, as well as act like a scumbag, so it does carry an air of poetic justice.
      • Then again, it looks like the Chief Minister is setting out to clear his name. But even if he succeeds, being incarcerated and known to the whole nation as a murderer, even temporarily, might be punishment enough.
    • Jagannath Rai's luck starts to run out during his Motive chapter, until finally his corruption and attempt to have his son killed are exposed.
  • Locked Room Mystery: Interestingly, most of the book is a standard whodunnit, but in the final pages the sequence of events of the actual murder (as most of the observers saw it) is finally laid out, and the question of who did it is quickly eclipsed by the question of how in the world. The Reveal at the very end actually answers this question first.
  • Magical Native American: Eketi, a Magical Native Indian.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Expanding on a theme present in Q & A, the plot features several occurrences that are implied, or believed by the characters, to be the work of supernatural forces, but could have natural explanations or be pure coincidence. These include the Onge tribe falling on hard times after the shivling is stolen (divine retribution or coincidence?), Eketi using tribal medicine to cure a girl of malaria that had spread to her brain (mystic healing or medical anomaly?), everyone who gets their hands on the stolen shivling quickly meeting a terrible fate (curse or coincidence?), Mohan becoming convinced he is Gandhi (possession or split personality?), and Champi's claim that the deceased Eketi visits her every night (astral projection or delusion?). However, there are a couple of cases that cannot be explained by our current understanding of the world: Nokai, who has never left the Andamans and knows nothing about the outside world, successfully using astral projection to pinpoint the shivling's location — accurately describing the route there, the house it's in, and where in the house it is; and Eketi "seeing" Mohan's possession and identifying the spirit as Ruby Gill, who he'd never heard of. This suggests that all the other cases likewise fall on the "Magic" side of the equation, and while it doesn't confirm the Hollywood Voodoo in Q & A, it at least tells us that could have been the real thing, too.
  • Named Like My Name: Larry Page has no relation to the inventor of Google, but is confused for him more than once.
  • Operator from India: Larry gets hired at a call center to teach the Indian operators how to speak more like Americans. Having Larry advise anyone on anything is probably a really, really bad idea, but we are never shown how that works out for them. What we are shown is Larry taking an extra holiday shift working as an actual operator. He does such a horrible job that the enraged caller accuses him of being an Indian posing as American! This suspicion is only confirmed in his mind when he quizzes Larry on very basic American trivia — and finds that Larry's knowledge of his own country is downright insulting.
    Caller: Tell me, Mr Page, what is the population of the United States?
    Larry: I dunno. Is it one billion?
    Caller: Wrong. Name the ten amendments to the US Constitution.
    Larry: Aw, shucks, that's harder than Chinese arithmetic. By the way, what's a Constitution?
  • Plotline Crossover: The entire premise of the story is to demonstrate how six very different and mostly unrelated people came to be at the same party with a plausible motive to kill the same man, so this happens a fair bit.
  • "Rashomon"-Style: The suspects' recollections of Vicky Rai's murder are seemingly irreconcilable. The Reveal demonstrates that they were all correct about what they perceived; it was the conclusions they reached based on those perceptions that were wrong.
  • Red Herring:
    • Upon learning that Shabnam has a sister named Sapna, one might start to wonder if she has some unwitting connection with "Sapna Singh" after all. It turns out to be nothing more than a setup for a brief (but pivotal) misunderstanding between Shabnam and Larry.
    • As it turns out, all six suspects are red herrings.
  • Rotating Protagonist: The novel uses this and Switching P.O.V., as different characters have their chapters narrated differently:
    • Munna's and Larry's are told from the first person.
    • Shabnam's are told from the first person in the form of diary entries.
    • Jagannath's are telephone conversations written as bare dialogue and stage directions, suggesting they are transcribed from a recording.
    • Eketi's are told from the third-person omniscient, being mostly limited to Eketi's viewpoint, but a couple of times switching to Ashok's perspective, and once having Dolly do something that is unseen by Eketi.
    • Mohan's are told from the third-person limited, with a few paragraphs from Brijlal's perspective.
      • And when Mohan switches to his "Gandhi" personality, the narration switches from a subjective account that includes his thoughts and feelings, to an objective account that only tells us his actions (the reason being that this "personality" is actually the spirit of Ruby Gill, which the reader doesn't find out until near the end; a subjective account would have revealed her identity immediately).
  • Scary Minority Suspect: Eketi, who is apparently as black as it gets, and is mistaken for a Naxalite.
  • Seemingly Profound Fool: Whenever Larry Page is mistaken for the other Larry Page, his crass Southern idioms and asinine statements are taken for a unique sense of humor, which is in turn perceived as evidence of his intelligence.
  • Sequel Hook:
    • Moments after Vicky Rai's murder, Mohan is seen seizing on the floor, just like when Ruby Gill possessed him. He was most likely being possessed by Vicky Rai. A later line even hints at this. If that isn't a setup for a sequel...
    • The last page hints that the person who killed Vicky Rai may be tempted to kill again in the future.
  • The Smurfette Principle: Only one of the six suspects is a woman. There are other female characters, but they're all supporting characters at best.
  • The Summation: The resolution gives us no less than three summations, before The Reveal shows us which is correct: None of them. Two were written by the real murderer and were deliberately wrong (though one of them was wrong in a different way than was intended).
  • Token White: Larry is the only main character who is either white or non-Indian.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Downplayed with Larry, whose idiocy doesn't get him killed but regularly gets him in trouble, sometimes big. In fact, his being in India in the first place, thus his entire storyline, is the result of his stupidity.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: Genuinely goodhearted and well-meaning characters are hard to find in this story, and two of them are killed in horrible ways.
  • Unluckily Lucky: Everything that happens to Larry seems to be either good luck that turns out to be bad, good luck being followed by bad, good luck with a catch, or being saved from a sticky situation by something else going wrong.
  • Wham Line:
    "It was not a man who possessed you. It was a woman."
    "What was her name?"
    "Ruby Gill."
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • What happened to Brijlal and his daughter?
    • What's going to happen to the Onge tribe?
  • Yes-Man: Brijlal takes Mohan's abuse in silence, partly out of a sense of duty, partly out of a (misplaced) hope that when the time comes to marry off his daughter, he will be granted enough money to pay the dowry.