How to Kidnap the Rich by Rahul Raina

Originally published in 2021

Brilliant yet poor, Ramesh Kumar grew up working at his father’s tea stall in the Old City of Delhi. Now, he makes a lucrative living taking tests for the sons of India’s elite—a situation that becomes complicated when one of his clients, the sweet but hapless eighteen-year-old Rudi Saxena, places first in the All Indias, the national university entrance exams, thanks to him.

Ramesh sees an opportunity—perhaps even an obligation—to cash in on Rudi’s newfound celebrity, not knowing that Rudi’s role on a game show will lead to unexpected love, followed by wild trouble when both young men are kidnapped. 

But Ramesh outwits the criminals who’ve abducted them, turning the tables and becoming a kidnapper himself. As he leads Rudi through a maze of crimes both large and small, their dizzying journey reveals an India in all its complexity, beauty, and squalor, moving from the bottom rungs to the circles inhabited by the ultra-rich and everywhere in between.

A caper, social satire, and love story rolled into one, How to Kidnap the Rich is a wild ride told by a mesmerizing new talent with an electric voice.

The first kidnapping wasn’t my fault.
The others – those were definitely me.

The past few weeks I have found myself in something of a reading slump. While a few disappointments have appeared on the blog, several others didn’t either because the genre ties were too weak or because I abandoned them mid-read as my attention wandered. Thankfully How to Kidnap the Rich turned out to be the antidote to my state of mind, giving me exactly what I needed.

The story begins with Ramesh Kumar having been abducted along with a man named Rudi to be held for ransom. After establishing that situation, the novel jumps backwards in time to explain the circumstances that led the two men to that point before an event sees Ramesh realize how he might turn the tables and become a kidnapper himself, setting things off on an even crazier path.

Part of the joy of this novel comes from discovering that strange sequence of events and circumstances, so I do not want to be too detailed in my description of that plot. Suffice it to say that Ramesh had been working as a professional test taker, impersonating the sons of wealthy families and taking exams in their place for cash. Rudi’s parents had paid him to sit the All India exams on their son’s behalf but Ramesh outperforms his wildest expectations, placing second nationwide and turning his client into a celebrity.

How to Kidnap the Rich is a novel that is as much a work of social satire as it is a crime novel. It explores aspects of social class, privilege and identity. While some of the detail is specific to India, the themes are universal – after all, the idea of scams to help the children of the elites get access to prestigious educational institutions is not without parallels in the US education system. Those satirical elements are sharp, well-observed and often very wittily delivered.

Given that this blog is a mystery fiction blog, I should probably take a moment to specifically address the criminous elements of the story. As you have probably guessed this is not a story of detection (though the reader may well infer or deduce developments from evidence and observation).

As I read I couldn’t help but be reminded of the work of Jim Thompson. It’s not just the sharp wit and cynicism of the narration, nor the biting social satire or dubious morality of the protagonists but also the structure of the novel with its multiple reversals of fortune as characters’ misfortunes compound and the exploration of the gulf between peoples’ public and private faces. And just like Thompson’s best work, it’s a really wild ride.

I found Raina’s writing style to be highly engaging. That is partly because of structural decisions he makes to begin his novel at a pivotal moment in the story, not only creating a sense of mystery about the events that led to that moment but also meaning that once that background is explained he is able to take the action in a different direction, setting up a distinctly different second half of the novel.

The main reason though is that I think Ramesh has a really interesting voice. As with many a Thompson protagonist, I liked him in spite of some obvious character flaws – not least that he begins the story as a conman and a blackmailer. That partly reflects some elements of tragedy in his backstory but I think that the main reason is that he compares favorably with many of the other characters in the novel whose behavior is even worse. To put it another way, it is not so much that I want to see Ramesh succeed as I really wanted to see the other characters brought down.

Those antagonists are each strong characters and I enjoyed learning more about them and understanding the reasons for their actions. I appreciate that Raina draws each quite boldly, allowing them to feel individual and make an impact even when we do not necessarily see them for very long, and that in several cases their roles within the novel evolve and change. The fluidity of that antagonism is interesting and I think it is one of the more distinctive elements of the novel, only adding to the sense that the book is something of a rollercoaster.

The plot moves incredibly quickly, often escalating in unpredictable and amusing ways. I was pleased to find that, rather than fizzling out as some heist-type stories often do, Raina builds to a strong finish that feels like an appropriate conclusion to the novel’s central themes. It left me satisfied, amused and hoping to see more from the author in the future.

The Verdict: A highly amusing and fast-paced romp that balances witty and sharp social commentary with an exciting kidnapping story.

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