Jun 152012

There’s a paradox in crime fiction that’s set in a particular place: One the one hand, you need crime, preferably murder, and on the other, you risk making your location, usually a place you know and love, appear crime-ridden and desperate.
I certainly faced this dilemma while writing my first novel, Murder in Mumbai, which focuses on the investigation surrounding the killing of an American executive in India’s largest city. But as I’ve said in the book and to anyone who’ll care to listen, there are comparitively few homicides in Mumbai. But the more emphatically I said that, the more I wondered, is it really true?
With that question in mind, I visited the Mumbai police website to look for actual crime data from the past few years.
Here’s what I found: There were 202 homicides in the city in 2011, the most recent year for which data are available. That’s a drop from the 227 homicides the previous year. (India’s overall homicide rate is among the lowest in the world).
Now, one might argue that even one murder is a killing too many, but let’s look at the facts: That’s 202 homicides in a city of 14 million people. In comparison, Philadelphia, a city of 1.5 million people, had 324 homicides the same year, the highest rate among large U.S. cities.
But crime statistics are only one part of a writer’s armory. If they were the only thing that writers relied on, there would be no Scandinavian crime fiction, no Sherlock Holmes and certainly no mysteries based in large English castles.
So what does one consider — besides fact — when writing about crime in a city? Mood, for one. This is easy when a city has its own personality, as Bombay does. It helps that the city isn’t a planned one; its growth has been organic, its focus commerce. And because the city exists for one purpose — to make money — it attracts a certain type of population: the striver. The belief is that your background doesn’t matter in Mumbai, all you need to succeed is determination. This environment is perfect for crime fiction. True, homicide rates may not be high, but the type of crime to be found — con jobs to make a quick buck, examination scams to get ahead and the unholy nexus of crime, politics and business — make it a fertile ground for the genre.
I’ve never visited Scandinavia, but the crime novels set there are among my favorite. Many of them focus on serial killers and sex crimes. Do such crimes happen? I’m sure they do. Do they happen at the rate the books suggest? Certainly not. But that doesn’t detract from the writing or the genre.
As someone once said, why let the truth get in the way of a good story?

  6 Responses to “Murders In Mumbai”

  1. i think it is low, also because fewer crimes are reported. fewer bodies turn up, and forensics is still in the 18th century…
    Also, having the ocean around helps, as does the fact that we don’t have a record of all those who live here…
    but, yes compared to what one reads and sees about the USA – Mumbai is far more crime free…

  2. My friend had a hypothesis that a very high percentage (close to 65-70%) of homicide is for emotional reasons, not monetary gains. It could be caste, honour, greed (intra-familial) and jealousy. He went ahead and collected newspaper cuttings to back his theory. The murderer knew the victim well, was even trusted.
    Like many Shakespearean murders….

  3. shankar: i can see emotional reasons being a prime factor for killings. i think that’s possibly universal.
    harini: how crimes are reported and counted are always fascinating. the hbo show “the wire” deals with this issue well. i think it might be the same everywhere.

  4. Hey, does India have low crime rates where serial killing and white collar cons are involved as well? You do hear of ponzi schemes and embezzlement but I can’t remember the last time I read about a proper heist or when we last heard reports of a serial killer on the lose. USA on the other hand seems to have at least one serial killer running around in each city, every year.
    Or do they just have better reporters?

    • that’s a great question, and i think it has more to do with better crime-reporting standards (not journalism but police, fbi, etc.) than anything else. a lot of violent crime may just go unreported in india (such as rape) because of the social stigma attached to the victims but that doesn’t mean that the numbers aren’t high. similarly, if we had people poring over some sort of central crime database, it’s likely you’ll find more of the kinds of crimes you talk about.
      also, i think perhaps levels of corruption in india mean much of the white collar crime gets ignored. not that that’s not true in the u.s. (just look at how long madoff was able to get away with it), but i think they eventually get caught because something in the system works.

Leave a Reply