Lead Tin Yellow – Doug Gunnery (A book review and an anecdote)


This book was sent to me in exchange of an honest review

When I received a request to review a work from an Indian author writing crime fiction set in the Unites States with American characters, I was suitably impressed. It was about time that an Indian took a serious plunge into international crime-fiction writing; especially, when one reads so many books by authors who have never set foot in our country (or have only managed to travel the tourist circuit) on plots set in exotic India, more often than not managing to portray the populace as amicable snake-charmers . As someone who has worked and lived in the US for years, I thought it made Doug Gunnery more than qualified to be able to take on the mantle on India’s behalf.

Also, solving a crime in India must be a logistical nightmare for an amateur detective when you realize that 95% of the cases are solved only by tracing cell phone records according to Crime Patrol (which would entail a lot of bribery when not going through proper channels), there are no surveillance cameras anywhere (or when there are, they are either mysteriously out of commission or pointed towards the sky), the police never manages to collect any evidence (they never wear gloves, never cordon off the area, never have evidence bags), forensics is carried out as minimally as possible since the morgue is usually the most dilapidated falling-down building in a hospital where nobody wants to spend more than a second than absolutely necessary (it is such a devalued aspect of investigation that the most revered crime show in the country still depicts a body bleeding when cut during an autopsy), where nobody wants to get embroiled in a criminal case by giving evidence and spending the next quarter of their lives going to court, and very rarely do attics/basements yield a family treasure/secret – seeing as there is never an inch of extra space in an Indian household, family history is rarely if ever documented for future generations (it goes back too many millenia to do that) and mothers are prone to vigorous bouts of spring cleaning. All these factors and many more make it impossible to write a truly interesting story that is neatly tied up in the end, unless one manages to kill everybody off.

Robin Miller is a journalist working in Massachusetts whose reticent Vietnam veteran father comes to visit him from their childhood home in Jericho Heights. After exchanging a few desultory remarks about some wartime ‘documents’ that his father has brought for his perusal, Robin decides his duty for the time being is done and its safe to leave him alone to go to work. He arrives back in the evening to an empty house and thinking that his father must have gone out for a walk, waits for him – at first patiently and then becoming increasingly nervous. When the police car pulls up to inform him that his father has been shot dead, Robin is stunned. Why would someone kill his quiet, reserved father in such a gruesome manner? And why did his father take his suitcase with him, throwing it over a bridge seconds before he was shot? As Robin begins to make sense of the ‘desultory’ remarks he had shared with his father, the plot slowly begins to unfurl into a fantastic and unbelievable tapestry of war crimes, greed, industrial bankruptcy and murder. Robin finds help along the way with his fashion savvy girlfriend Linda and his older half brother Jeff, who is a senior partner in a very prestigious accountancy firm.

As Robin struggled to understand what could be the important ‘documents’ that a Vietnam veteran could have, so did I. The mystery when revealed was not one of the many possibilities I had conjured up in my imagination. Together Robin and Linda uncover the true value of these ‘documents’ and are no longer shocked to find the lengths to which some people will go to find them. Robin is constantly followed by both the police and the villains who killed his father in the hopes that he knows more than he is sharing with either party.

From the very first chapter, Gunnery’s descriptions of a father seen through a son’s eyes are vivid and charmingly clear. Robin loves his father, but like sons all over the world is uncomfortable in a situation that demands a one-on-one conversation with him. Since, the book is from Robin’s perspective, his father’s motivations are explained in second-hand narratives through his wife and his one-time sweetheart. Robin is a lovable fellow and a thinker, and it is obvious how much he loved his father as he sets out to protect his memory and the bond that he craves for with his brother.

Robin seems vary of his brother’s overtures of friendship in the beginning and is surprised and overwhelmed in an understated way every time he receives a supportive hand from him. The brothers who have become distant over the years as they immersed themselves in their respective lives come together at this crucial time, lending support and encouragement to each other and reconnecting the trust and love they shared as children. Gunnery brings each character alive through Robin’s sharp journalistic eye and wit. It is a wonderful family drama as much as it is a crime thriller. The author has chosen to give us a laid-back, mostly private hero, perhaps more like his father than he cared to admit, who is nonetheless pushed to do what he deems necessary without making a big fuss of it. It added to his overall appeal and explained his choice of a girlfriend like Linda.

There are also some great lines in the book and I loved this one in particular.

My father was kind and gentle and was lucky to find my mother. My mother was lucky to find my father and I think he made her kind.’

The book slows down towards the end and the climax scene was a tad over-embellished. It seemed as if Robin got away with his final plans for his father’s killers very easily, given that a whole police force was standing just around the corner to apprehend the troublemakers. It is also surprising that the police never connected him to the happenings related to Dorothy Atkins. The other biggest drawback is the the book cover. It is dull and does no justice to the story within its covers. Its seems as if nobody paid any attention at all towards making a striking presentation for this fun read. Lead Tin Yellow – the name of the book has a colour in it. How could someone mess this up? And I could write a whole paragraph about those David Headly eyes but suffice it to say that they are a decided turn off.

All in all, I thought the book is a superb effort for a first-time fiction writer. The characters are beautifully etched out and the wrinkles in the plot are few and mainly clustered around the end. There are also a few editorial glitches but those are not the author’s fault. At no point in the narrative could I have said that the author was anything but an all-American himself. Doug Gunnery has proved himself to be an American through and through even if he has a purely Indian genetic profile.

Doug Gunnery by the way is a pseudonym, which I supposed initially to be due to commercial reasons. When I received the book in the post a few weeks ago, with the author’s real name and address on the cover, I couldn’t quite fathom the incredulous expression accompanying my husband’s question of “Why are you getting a book by  ___ ?”  A silly question to ask a book reviewer, and for a short-lived blissful moment I wondered whether he was jealous that I was hobnobbing with a male writer, even if a bit late in the day considering I have been reviewing books for over a year now. I decided to stick to the generic “What do you mean?” instead. My husband peered at my face closely before venturing a tentative, “Don’t you know who he is?” I was stumped. How would my husband know a first-time writer before I did? This is my domain after all. “He is an academician who has written a crime story set in the US” I paraphrased with dignity from memory. My right of center, politically savvy, extremely well-read and live encyclopedia of a husband sighed and clarified, “He is one of the most prominent sociologists in the country, the HOD of ____ in a prominent Delhi university, is a left liberal and a regular on prime-time news.”

I was flabbergasted. I had thought he was a professor/ lecturer around my age, or possibly younger, dabbling in something new and had replied to his emails with platitudes like ‘Hey’ and ‘Cheers’ in a faintly superior manner. As I scrambled to check his email my husband asked again “Why would you be reading his books?” The signature proved that my husband had been correct yet again, while I still tried to grasp what he meant by his questions. “Why can’t he send me his book?” I decided to be direct. “Because he is a sociologist and writes non-fiction!” hubby answered, rapidly getting exasperated by my replies. As the import of that registered, I bristled with moral indignation before spluttering, “I will thank you to remember that I am absolutely capable of reading tomes on sociology or history or politics just as much as you are.” After spending about 2 seconds on deciding whether or not to dignify that declaration with a reply, choosing a devious path Hubby instead asked with a sardonic grin, “What is the book, then?” As much as I wanted to reply something along the lines of ‘The sepulchral decline of the Indian woman in society since the 19th century’, honesty dictated a mumbled, “A crime thriller, its his first” from me. Hubby gave me a ‘that makes sense’ smile and walked off humming. Now I knew why the author had chosen to write under a pseudonym – to shy away from the intellectual snobs of his circle. What do they know of the thrill of following a detective down a dark alley. Well, we common people welcome you with open arms sir!


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