Indian writer Raghu Roy currently lives in Mumbai. He makes his fiction debut in the Department of First Stories of our current issue (January/February 2022) with the story “The Policeman and the Dead.” As its title suggests, the story’s protagonist is a policeman—a high-ranking inspector. In this post, the author gives us a look at how he came to create the character. —Janet Hutchings
Everything was going just fine. The earth was going around the sun. I had a morning routine that changed only when I went to bed late at night—very late, that is—after which the day followed with the predictability of meteorological forecasts! Overall, I lived an ordinary, uneventful life. Then everything changed. The earth was still going around the sun, but that seemed like an afterthought on its part, or, someone might say, just to maintain a semblance of normalcy. I am, of course, only giving the human perspective—nature and the animals appeared utterly unaffected.
It is two years now, but it has already become an old story, so much so that every new day becomes an old one even before it has called it a day!
It is not yet time to reminisce about these two years. I hope the time will come soon for us to do so over a glass of wine. But I reminisce now about a reminiscence I had in the early days of the virus. About a teacher who taught me English in my secondary school and introduced me to detective stories in a big way. “Every life is a detective story, Raghu.” He had said this in his peculiar drawl. He did not drink, but when he held a new book in his hand, he felt high. He had one at that time. A Bengali potboiler, with a cover that had the private detective shooting his way out with his gun in his left hand, a knife held between his teeth while he hung precariously from a sixteenth-story window. My teacher did not elaborate any further, but he had aroused my curiosity. Just to think my life was a detective story unfolding gave me goosebumps. He was unmarried, then. He was cryptic in his speech and did not take kindly to queries on his pronouncements. Soon, he got married, and very soon after that he ceased being cryptic and was a little more generous. I was too young to figure out the cause-and-effect relationships of this phenomenon, but I welcomed the development, and, one day, finding a window of opportunity, had asked him what he had meant when he said life was a detective story. I thought I detected a philosophical film glaze over his eyes when he turned to answer my question. Later, as I grew older, I would notice the film among many married men. By now, the film may be several microns thick in my eyes too, though my wife dismisses such creative musings of mine as nothing more than an advancing cataract.
I do not remember my teacher’s response to my question, primarily because I had found he did not make any sense. My wife had once remarked that sometimes men like to speak from a height and make seemingly profound utterances that make them feel good, although they are clueless about what they mean. I always agree with her, so this time was no exception.
However, I did not allow this to affect my reading and enjoying of crime stories and thrillers, both in Bengali and, later, in English. Soon other genres opened up. Literary writing, science fiction, fantasies, and Westerns. But I dreamt of writing mystery stories.
Years passed. But writing did not happen. I could not take out bulk time or get the focus needed to do that. Writing is a hard taskmaster. But time and again, I toyed with the idea of creating my own detective. There were too many of them to draw inspiration from. My favorites were the old-timers. After a lot of thought, shaping and reshaping characters in my mind, I decided that Christie and Doyle are too British for me to be able ever to emulate. Poirot was Belgian (but if he was not an Englishman, except to another Englishman, then I am Neil Armstrong). As for Sherlock Holmes, one Bengali writer had created Byomkesh Baxi, in Holmes’s mould, had written some brilliant stories, but ultimately Baxi was his own man. Which, anyway, is as it should be.
In my middle age, science fiction and fantasy writing took more of my shelf space than others. I read the newer crop of detective story writers sporadically. Whenever I wanted a different cuisine, I picked up one from my old favorites—Christie, Conan Doyle, Rex Stout, Chandler, and Dashiell Hamett.
Reading, after all, is always so much more fun than writing. I kept on writing, but mostly in bits and pieces. There is an almost-finished novel, a draft of nonfiction, and I experimented with forms and formats. But I was never in full earnest.
Then, when the world changed, I did not accept it immediately. Maybe no one did. For a month or so, I waited for life as I knew it to resume. That did not happen. Another month was spent on finding alternate means of escape. It wasn’t to be. Then came the thought . . . let me write short stories.
An endless vista stretched before me, like for the young boy when he was taken to the park for the first time. I remember the time and the boy. He did not know which way to run; all directions were open and equally inviting. So he ran every which way. The ground was full of grass, so he did not get injured when he fell, which he did several times. He enjoyed his aimless running but soon realized that every run must have a purpose, and it could be more fun that way.
Likewise, all my favorite genres beckoned to me. Isaac Asimov, David Gemmell, Ernest Hemingway, Dashiell Hammett, and scores of others.
Plotlines, story titles, first lines, first paragraphs followed, flitting from one genre to another. I realized I needed to be purposeful and start with one; the others would hopefully follow. Which one to start with? I was, like the coronavirus, going everywhere, yet going nowhere.
I remembered my schoolteacher. And the genre I had started out with.
Then it was a no-brainer. The boy had started his rendezvous with fiction by reading detective stories; in his sixty-ninth year, the man would start his writing with the same genre.
Decision taken, I needed a detective. The story could come later.
After a bit of thought, the character emerged as a cross of two of my favorites. Archie Marlow was born.
Now I needed to hatch a murder plot. I made three of them.
I picked up one to start earnestly.
Then I had a second thought. The trend now is for policeman detectives. Why not?
Assistant commissioner of police Venkatraman took shape. A man never in a hurry but quick, very quick. And pensive.
Start with him. Archie Marlowe can wait.