The difference between a good detective story and a truly outstanding one is the signal to noise ratio. If you increase the signals that lead to the the solution of the mystery, then you stand the chance of losing the interest of readers who have easily solved the mystery. If you increase the background noise to a level that the actual clues get buried deep into layers that readers can’t find, you stand the chance of losing their interest because it is unsolvable. Chitrochor (চিত্রচোর) is one of Saradindu Bandyopadhyay’s finest Byomkesh Bakshi stories because it maintains the right signal-noise ratio throughout the story.
The premise is simple enough. Byomkesh and Ajit are investigating the curious disappearance of a photograph from the house of Mahidhar Choudhury, a rich elderly man who lives in a palatial house with his only daughter Rajani. In the group photo are Mahidhar babu and his daughter; Professor Arindam Som and his wife Malati Debi; physician Dr. Ashwini Ghatak; administrative Deputy Ushanath Ghosh and his family; and bank manager Amaresh Raha.
Byomkesh and Ajit learn that there were three copies of this photograph apart from the negatives. After a number of break-ins in which apparently very little gets stolen, it is revealed that there are no existing copies of the photograph. In fact the negatives can’t be found either. In addition, a remarkably talented artist named Falguni Pal who possesses the rare gift of being able to draw accurate resemblances of the characters from a single glance shows up on the premises and gets murdered. Although there are other reasons why the copies of the photograph might be stolen, the most likely, considering the lengths taken to acquire them and the fact that a murder is involved, is that whoever is taking the photograph does not want to be identified in it.
As an active reader of mystery fiction, I usually sit down with pen and paper to write down possible suspects and motives while reading. Although in the case of Chitrochor I was able to narrow the field somewhat by completing this exercise, because Saradindu keep the ratio of real clues to “red herrings” near perfection, I was at a loss to come up with the solution. I am happy to say that I had no clue.
Consider the complexity of Chitrochor. There is a very intriguing story running in parallel to the main plot. This complicated love story involves mystery, suspicion, jealousy, and suspected infidelity and is remarkable as a work of fiction in itself. Completely integrated into the main story-line it brilliantly serves as an elaborate smokescreen. Then there is the story of Byomkesh recovering from illness and humorous conversations involving him, Ajit, and Satyabati that are reminiscent of the best of P.G. Wodehouse. There are also numerous minor character sketches superbly portrayed.
The clue to the puzzle is the appearance of the perpetrator and this clue is mentioned multiple times in story along with other circumstantial evidence. Why couldn’t I pick it up? Saradindu confounds us psychologically by making us focus on the peripherals. Why is Ushanath Ghosh so fearful? Why does he have a fake eye? Why is Ashwini Ghatak filled with vengeance? Why is Malati Debi such a mean lady? Why is the photographer Nakuleswar so shady? As I found myself focusing on the noise, Saradindu kept planting the signals leading to a resolution that was logical, tidy, and most importantly, plausible.
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the story is the sense of misdirection in time. Once the possible suspects are identified, logically the next questions revolve around the perpetrator and the crime. However, because the removal of the incriminating identification (photographs) occurred prior to the actual crime, I found myself missing this essential point. But like all logical explanations it makes perfect sense in hindsight.
Chitrachor does not feature a spectacular modus operandi or a suave villain and might therefore get overlooked by readers listing their favorite Byomkesh stories. I would disagree strongly. I think it ranks among the top four or five Byomkesh stories that Saradindu wrote.
©2010-2012 Byomkesh.com. All rights reserved.