Beverly author Susan Oleksiw’s “Under the Eye of Kali” gives us the very likable, intelligent and amusing Anita Ray, an Indian-American-photographer living over a garage at her Auntie Meena’s Hotel Delite in southern India.
"Under the Eye of Kali” By Susan Oleksiw. Five Star Publishing, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning, Waterville, Maine, May 2010. 273 pages. $25.95.
Summer, for many of us, signals permission to indulge in a bit of escapism. I reach for mystery novels, especially those steeped in local culture. Best of all are those that feature an interesting but complicated protagonist whose efforts at detection are thwarted by contentious people and/or aggravated circumstances.
Author Susan Oleksiw’s “Under the Eye of Kali” fits the bill splendidly. She gives us the very likable, intelligent and amusing Anita Ray, an Indian-American-photographer living over a garage at her Auntie Meena’s Hotel Delite in southern India. Oleksiw is right for the job. She received her doctorate in Asian studies (trained as a Sanskritist). She continues to travel and study in India, and her books reflect compassion, a sharp eye for detail and an appreciation and understanding of the culture she portrays.
It is tourist season at Hotel Delite and Meena and her staff bend over backward to accommodate guests who hail from all parts of the globe. Naturally, the hotel staff are horrified when one female guest goes missing and her traveling companion is rushed to the hospital with agonizing stomach cramps. It seems she has ingested something highly toxic.
Among the many troubles confronting Hotel Delite are a guest’s deadly fall over a seaside cliff, the mysterious death of a young man with ties to one of the hotel’s guests, black-market traders stalking Anita in the shadows, careless nurses attempting to smuggle medical supplies across the Thailand border into Burma and the fact that Auntie Meena does not like Anita’s dashing suitor.
Anita Ray, in order to preserve the good name of Hotel Delite, calm her aunt and provide peace for the guests, spends her time ruminating, questioning and observing. She’s wise and curious and a tad fearless — a great combination if you want your protagonist to put us on the edge of our seat by courting danger on a steep and rocky path in the middle of a dark night.
Anita is a photographer who, for a few hours a day, operates a small shop where she sells photos. She’s an artist with an appreciation for color, food, Hinduism, people, the Indian way of life, nature and beauty in general. She loves and tolerates her Aunt Meena, a bit of a hand-wringer. And she witnesses and processes what she sees: “[Anita] was somewhat skeptical of the many gurus who plied their trade of securing wisdom and enlightenment for anyone who wanted it, but she was never in doubt of the transformative power of feelings of affection or dislike. She stood in awe of the way feelings could move people in and out of sanity and rational behavior.”
When Anita is attacked, two of the men she works with in her shop come to her aid. Chinnappa, a man who makes clothing for the tourists (he makes the clothes larger and larger to accommodate the tourists’ expanding girths), tackles Anita’s attacker and launches into a tirade: “Good for nothing, eater of meat and ashes, defiled by liquor and women, what do you want?” There are many such amusing moments in “Under the Eye of Kali.”
The mysteries solved, Hotel Delite goes on with the business of providing rest and pleasant experiences for its guests. I, for one, would like to return next season.
Cape Ann Beacon contributor Rae Francoeur can be reached at email@example.com. Her new book “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair” is now available. Read her blog at freefallrae.blogspot.com.