The megalopolis of Chennai Formerly known as Madras, and capital of Tamil-Nadu, the most southerly state of India on the Coromandel Coast. India’s sixth biggest city with over 12 million people. Home to terrific hot curries, and also known as India’s healthiest and safest city – not that that means there’s no decent crime writing.
Before we get into modern Chennai, first a little old Madras. Brian Stoddart is a writer of fiction and non-fiction based in Queenstown, New Zealand but who has written extensively on India and south Asia. A Madras Miasma (2014) was the first in a series of four books set in 1920s Chennai featuring Superintendent Chris Le Fanu, who happens to unfortunately be allergic to the sight of blood. The British are slowly losing the grip on the subcontinent, empire is petering out but that doesn’t mean that a nasty murder doesn’t have political overtones. Superintendent Le Fanu is called in to find out who killed a respectable young British girl and dumped her in a canal, her veins clogged with morphine. Immediately the case is a quagmire of Raj politics, rebellion and criminal activity. Le Fanu returns in The Pallampur Predicament (2014) to a Madras in the midst of a British crackdown on independence activists, Gandhi’s peace movement and British secret agents, any one of whom could have been the murderers of an an Indian Rajah.
In the third book, A Straits Settlement (2016) Le Fanu, now promoted to Inspector-General of Police, is faced with the case of a murdered senior Indian Civil Service officer and is drawn into the murky worlds of indentured labour recruitment and antiquities theft and the old British colony of the Straits Settlement (essentially what is now Malaysia, Singapore and a few other islands). And finally, A Greater God (2018) with Le Fanu back in Madras, a city in chaos as Muslims and policemen are killed by independence revolutionaries.
PJ Thurbin writes the Ralph Chalmers Mysteries Book (30 or so altogether), number 18 of which is called Murder in Madras (2016). Professor Ralph Chalmers is a Professor of International Business who ends up investigating mysteries. Here he encounters a wave of gold and diamond smuggling sweeping the Indian subcontinent. Colonel Stigart of MI6 enlists Ralph’s help in an investigation.
Enough novels set back in colonial times, how about modern Chennai!
Hyderabad writer Sriram Chellaopilla’s A Useful Death (2019) starts with the death of aspiring actress Priya. It’s a suicide, but rumour has it that the son of politician and former Telugu-movie superstar (the movies out of South India’s “Tollywood” with movies in the Telugu language) drove her to it. Just another film-industry scandal? Or something bigger. Partha is hired to investigate. Why won’t such a powerful father defend his son? Is there an intra-family war? Whose interests are playing out in the media and on social media? A twisty tale.
Chital Mehta is the author of The Chennai Killings (2019). Inspector Vikram Rathi can’t sleep. His sister’s brutal murder haunts him. And now he must investigate the recent murder of a young woman in Chennai that takes Vikram on a journey of buried secrets, complicating his already messed up life.
Single named author, Rangarajan, is based in Chennai, and is an academic and a political advisor, so his 2021 book A Madras Mystery is filled with lots of insider information and descriptions on Chennai’s political world. A string of abductions from various parts of the city sends tremors amongst the ruling class in Tamil Nadu. The State is embroiled in caste clashes and only a few months are left for the general elections and top politicians are jockeying for cabinet positions. Indian Police Service officer Ashwin investigates but can’t be sure if the kidnappings are about money, political influence, personal animosities or to destroy Chennai?
Chennai-based writer Usha Narayanan has written a host of romance and mythological fiction, as well as one murder book – but it’s a good one. The Madras Mangler (2014) sees a psychopath comes to town, killing girls and dumping their bodies in the rivers. The killer is smart, dangerous and very angry and is now being hunted by Vir Pradyumna, a criminologist from New York. Ruthless politicians, bumbling cops, beer barons and cyber criminals all appear, and (as this is an Indian novel) there’s a climactic scene at an India-Australia cricket match.
In Sriram Tawker’s The Madras Murder (2023), pharmaceutical empire boss, Rajeev Mehta is poised to become the company’s next chairman. But then unexpectedly commits suicide. His impending wedding adds to the mystery surrounding his tragic and sudden death. Assigned to solve this enigma is Ilamaaran, a determined Deputy Superintendent of Police known for his sharp instincts. The Madras Murder is expected to be the first in a series of books featuring Deputy Superintendent Ilamaaran.
Chennai, as a massive city, naturally has its fair share of true crime cases. CB-CID – A Retrospect, 1906 -2010 (2011) was written by Chennai’s Chief Minister Muthuvel Karunanidhi (who died in 2018). It contains a host of Chennai crimes including the sensational Maniyachi murder case of 1911, the Visa Oosi series of murders of 1972, 1980s serial murderer Auto Shankar and more. The book also covers fraud, communal violence and white-collar crimes too.
And finally a couple of very different books from GV Subba Rao, who studied creative writing in London and writes cinema screenplays as well as a couple of novels. No Murder Tonight (2014) is a hard novel to describe but takes place on one Chennai night as a host of different forces come together – Santosh, an engineer turned political assassin; Maria, an aspiring pilot turned spy; Swapna, a medical student turned highest-priced bordello madam; Sandeep and Amit, Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) officers turned commandos; Shyam Agarwal, an industrialist turned conspirator; and Chennai’s Power Minister, Salem Palaniswamy whose lust for power and money corrupts everyone. There’s a bunch of money around they’d all like it and most are willing to commit murder to get it. Subba Rao followed up No Murder Tonight with The Missed Beat (2018), featuring Dr. Raj Kumar, an eminent cardiologist whose daughter is kidnapped unleashing a rollercoaster ride all apparently based on real life events.