"The Cosmic Clues," by Manjiri Prabhu (Dell, 370 pages, $6.99)
Although presented as a novel, this is really a collection of loosely
connected short stories featuring one of the more original sleuths
around. Sonia Samarth operates Stellar Investigations in Pune, India.
Stellar is a private detective agency based on the principles of Vedic
astrology, a not so outlandish idea in a place where just about everyone
keeps a horoscope handy.
Sonia is quick to point out that she uses astrology, which she considers
a true science, as a map to help guide her investigations; otherwise she
employs all the standard detective tools, including interviews,
surveillance and lots of legwork. But if a horoscope tells her that the
accused is not capable of committing a crime, Sonia knows she has to
These stories are true puzzles in the grand old tradition that reaches
back to Poe and Doyle. Tying them all together is the master criminal, a
mysterious figure known as the Owl, whose presence is felt throughout
the book. It's all good fun, made even more enjoyable by an evocative
portrait of modern India life.
"The Cosmic Clues," by the way, is one of five books selected by the
Independent Mystery Booksellers Association for its first monthly Killer
Books list, a program modeled after the American Booksellers
Association's BookSense. Other October selections are "The Alto Wore
Tweed" (St. James Music Press, $10), by Mark
Schweizer, a comic mystery about an Episcopal organist who turns
detective after buying Raymond Chandler's typewriter; "Confessions of a
Death Maiden" (Warner, $6.99), by Ruth Francisco, a dark novel about a
woman who helps ease people into death; "Blitz" (St. Martin's Press,
$12.95), by Ken Bruen, a hard-edged English police novel; and "The
Damascened Blade," (Carroll & Graf, $25) by Barbara Cleverly, the third
of Cleverly's colorful mysteries set in India in the 1920s.
Tom and Enid Schantz write a monthly column on new mystery releases.
(Review in the Denver Post, USA)
"As a child, all I wanted to do in life, is write, write and write,” says Dr
Prabhu. “I was of the firm opinion that I could give up my schooling (since writers only needed their imagination) and do full time writing! Luckily for me, my mother did not think so.”
Raised in a close-knit family, little Manjiri had an inspiring, fun-filled childhood “trying to solve mysteries when there were none”, with her four sisters and a brother. “We loved Enid Blyton’s books and engaged ourselves in secret clubs and treasure hunts,” she says. The five also loved films, and their games used to consist of family competitions, where their mother would be the judge, and they would sing, dance, direct and compose.
“We would have stage shows, where each aspect of the show, from direction to performance and lighting would be done by each one of us.”
Which is why, it was probably natural for Dr Prabhu to turn to writing, and then to television production. “Films have been an intuitive part of my life,” she says. “Films came naturally to me.”
After a formal foray into films with film criticism, writing reviews for three major newspapers in
Pune, she plunged into film making with a children’s film called “The Ranpar Mystery” which was screened in the Children’s Film Festival in Delhi and then went to Toronto, Canada. Recently she wrote the story, script and dialogues for a Hindi feature film, directed by her sister
Purnima. “Kuchh Dil Ne Kaha”, a psychological mystery thriller produced by
NFDC. The production designing of the film was also handled by Dr Prabhu and her mother.
“My Ph. D. was about the image of the Indian woman in Hindi films and the study included six directors and their films along with an audience poll,” she says. “I later converted this thesis into a book called “Roles: Reel and Real”.
A children’s television producer for the last 18 years, her program has a daily telecast in the state-run
Doordarshan. Dr Prabhu is married to Bipinchandra Chaugule, also a television producer.
And although, all she wanted to do as a child is write, Dr Prabhu went on to obtain a Master’s degree in French from the University of
Pune. Simultaneously, she did her Post Graduate Diploma in Mass Communication from Sophia Polytechnic, Mumbai and finally her Ph.D. in Communication Science from the University of
A television producer and a writer, or a writer and a television producer?
“A writer first,” exclaims Dr Prabhu. “But at this point, it is difficult for me to separate the two. Even when I write, I visualize every scene in terms of a film and not simply as a book.”
Her book “The Cosmic Clues” is the first one in a series. The main protagonist, Sonia Samarth and her Stellar Investigations Detective solve cases using psychological insights, intuition, and horoscopes in a series of stories based in
Pune. “My book is a fun-filled mystery book which I prefer to call a ‘serialized novel’ because it is a novel with a group of short stories connected by common characters, like a TV serial,” says Dr
Prabhu. “And even though the setting and plots are Indian, projecting India as it is today, with its quirks as well as advantages, the human relationships and psychological insights are universal.”
And in that sense, she believes that the masses all over the world would be able to relate with her books.
Having grown up on a staple diet of Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie (who she believes is the queen of crime), Wilkie Collins and Jane
Austen, Dr Prabhu, nonetheless, has her own distinct style of mystery writing, which is “quite different” from the style of Western writers of the genre. “My language is simple, more home grown but not devoid of plot intricacies,” she says. “The language is Indian in the sense that analogies etc. come from my day-to-day experiences in India. My plots however are quite intricate. But at the same time, I believe it would not be difficult for a westerner to relate with the style or the plots. Normally a book is woven around a single or double plot. But “The Cosmic Clues” is a web of several plots, all-interacting within a broad storyline. I think technique wise, it is not a commonly used format.”
How much of Dr Prabhu is there in Sonia Samarth? ”I do identify with her, but Sonia Samarth is not me,” says Dr
Prabhu. “Sonia can think logically and can be forgiving, I don’t think I can be so! She’s disciplined and organized, which I’m not. She has certain traits, of course, which is unavoidable with a main protagonist. But she’s basically a ‘nice’ person! Sonia is a smart, intelligent and yet sensitive girl. She is not inspired by any one single person, but she has traits of my whole family put together.”
“The Cosmic Clues” has an astrological base and the research-based horoscopes used for the characters in the book, were provided by Dr Prabhu’s mother Shobha Prabhu who is an astrologer of repute. A belief in astrology that the character Sonia shares with her creator Dr
Prabhu. “I firmly believe that a good astrologer can guide you through life,” she says “My mother has made some startling predictions over the last 40 years. For example, she had predicted way back in the 80s when Prince Charles and Lady Diana got married, that their marriage would result in divorce and Diana would never be a Queen. At that time, people even refused to publish such a bold statement, which my mother published in her own magazine. Today people look back and admire this prediction.
My mother has guided my whole family and several others over the years and it has shown me, how valuable the science of astrology can be as a guide in your life. I do not, of course, believe in applying astrology blindly to everything I do, or being obsessed with the predictions. But more or less, one can intelligently use the science to your benefit.”
Dr. Prabhu has signed a two-book contract for the World Rights of the book. The second novel of the Cosmic series, titled 'The Astral Alibi' is scheduled to be released in 2005.
Dr Prabhu believes that writing boils down to what one experiences or feels very strongly about, whether fiction or non-fiction. “You cannot write if you cannot ‘feel’ from your heart. And anything that comes from the heart is bound to be appreciated,” she says. “As far as my writing is concerned, I write what I enjoy and would love to read myself, but which at the same time would offer me and others something, a kind of philosophy of life.”
For now, it is philosophy cloaked in a thrilling, mystery format! Now, that’s exciting fare!