Combining history and mystery
The Trail of Four
Author- Manjiri Prabhu
Publisher- Bloomsbury, Rs399
Astrological significance and allusions are Manjiri Prabhu's forte and seen vastly in her previous works as well. Combining some of these elements with a thriller, she has added another dimension to the good old whodunnit mystery in her new novel based in Austria, writes AKSHITA RAWAT
Manjiri Prabhu, also called the ‘Agatha Christie of India’ by some, has written a mystery novel titled The Trail of Four set in the beautiful Austrian city, Salzburg. The novel was launched in the Austrian embassy in Delhi on February 22 by eminent politician, Dr Shashi Tharoor. Tharoor, however, suggested that her novels are more comparable to Dan Brown’s than Christie’s. Prabhu read an excerpt from the novel which was vivid in the description of the picturesque Salzburg. She revealed that her original plan was to write a love story set in the city, which later turned into a thriller revolving around a 300 year old heart of an Archbishop and its connection to the essence of Salzburg.
Re Parker, the French-Indian investigative journalist is a psychic in his ability to have premonitions. His premonitions draw him to Salzburg where he along with the historian Isabel and Police Chief Stefan set out to follow the trail set by Max Reinhardt, Europe’s most famous theatre director, many decades ago. Reinhardt had acquired and renovated the Schloss, a Rococo palace built by the Archbishop whose heart had been buried in the Schloss. He had to flee to America like many other Jews in order to save himself from the Nazis who were advancing towards Salzburg and Schloss. He left a secret behind when he died in 1942 in America, pining for Schloss, only to be found decades later. The secret is supposedly so big that it can destroy the city of Salzburg. Even a bigger threat than the Nazis, the novel revolves around the unfolding of this secret.
Schloss was returned to his widowed wife when the Nazis left, who agreed to sell the Schloss to three Harvard students looking for a place to begin a unique event aimed at supporting dialogue between America and Europe after the Second World War. It got converted into a hotel to host the guests of the event, Global Salzburg Seminar.
The novel begins with the description of Schloss Leopoldskron, the hotel being all set for the seminar to be held. With only 48 hours to the seminar and all the eminent personalities having reached the Schloss, the news of the heart of the Archbishop stolen comes as a shock that disrupts everything. A letter addressed by Max Reinhardt in his own hand-writing threatening the four pillars of Salzburg is found in the place of the heart. And that is how ‘the trail’ begins: “Where everything begins, And everything ends. And the angels are delighted, the envious demon growls, human wisdom vanishes and the triumphant church rejoices, and then she wears the crown of life.”
All the clues of the hunt take the reader for a touristy visit to the varied sculptures, the library, secret staircases, monuments, frescoes and historically rich sites. It becomes a treat for the ‘wanderlustful’ readers to get the feel of being in the streets of Austria. Prabhu enhances the mystery element by adding the pressure of time. She uses very well the ingredients of a good mystery book. Stefan sends police teams to check for any bombs near the pillars unaware it would have been an easy weapon. The surprise comes at the stroke of 12 pm, when 12 people at the Mozart birth house die by a poisonous gas leak by a drone. Floods, explosion at cathedral and heartbreak follow soon after. The Global Salzburg Seminar, the next major attack possible, needed to be saved in time from any disturbances in any circumstances.
Amidst Salzburg and Schloss, which are like characters in their own right, the protagonists of the novel shine brightly as well. Stefan and Isabel’s past together and their need to work together in the present bring the elements of love and despair in the mystery. Re’s psychic visions and depth of his character keep us interested. The essence of the number four is brought out well in the title as well as in the plot. The readers who like puzzles and treasure-hunts would like the novel for its style of revealing the mysteries. Love and revenge are usually the centre of many mystery novels, including this one. As it says, “Where the voice of Reason and Love, is the voice of Revenge...”
Prabhu at the book launch had said that she felt that the book had found her and not the other way around. She fell in love with Salzburg and the Schloss Leopoldskron during a visit and decided she would come back to write a novel set there. It was difficult for her to write as an outsider to the country according to her, but the novel has come out beautifully with no trail untouched. The elements of mystery are not that out of the box but at the same time carefully thought out. Astrological significance and allusions are Prabhu’s forte and seen vastly in her previous works as well. Combining some of these elements with a thriller, she has added another dimension to a good-old ‘whodunnit’ mystery.
The Trail of Four is a refreshing thriller by an Indian author and definitely stands up to the mark in the genre. An agreeable and pleasing read, the novel is a good buy for someone interested in travelogues as well as mysteries.
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