In 2019, Ajay Chowdhury won the inaugural Harvill Secker/Bloody Scotland award aimed at discovering new crime writers from underrepresented communities. The Waiter, which appears at first to be two crime novels for the price of one, is Chowdhury’s debut crime novel (he had previously published a children’s book). And along the way it tips its hat to the crime greats and what appears to be Chowdhury’s inspirations for his plot and characters.
The book opens with a frenetic and confusing cold open in which a number of characters are hurriedly introduced and the body of Rakesh Sharma is found by his swimming pool. The narrator of this scene, and of the book itself, is the waiter Kamil Sharma who turns out to be a detective from Kolkata cooling his heels in London after some sort of disgrace in his home town. The narrative will catch up to that opening scene – setting out how Kamil works in the restaurant of old family friends Saibal and Maya, but also the first steps in the disastrous investigation in Kolkata. In this way Chowdhury provides two investigations for the price of one – Kamil as the amateur sleuth trying to clear the name of Rakesh’s wife, accused of the murder, and Kamil as a sub-Inspector with a father famous in the police service, charged with investigating the death of a Bollywood star and learning the depths of Indian corruption the hard way.
The Waiter builds solidly on the tropes of all of the predecessors. While claiming that life is not like an Agatha Christie novel, the murder of Rakesh is a pure Agatha Christie set up – a party full of possible suspects at the house prior to the murder, family tensions including a trophy wife and a Cinderella-style clue grasped in the hand of the dead man – and its ultimate solution is pure crime novel (and not worth thinking about for too long). The Kolkata investigation is a little more hard boiled procedural but it is hard to believe that Kamil was so naïve as to think that there would not be political interference. The connections between the two strands are hinted at through the text.
The Waiter is an enjoyable crime debut that brings a distinct voice to some well worn crime fiction alleyways. Chowdhury captures both London and Kolkata, and the very distinct differences between them, well, and the food smells almost burst from the page. Kamil is supported by an interesting range of side characters including his “offsider” Anjoli, some Bollywood stars and Rakesh’s ex wife Pinky. And while his future seems to be in the restaurant business it would not be surprising if Kamil were to be back sleuthing at some point.