Originally published in 2000
Collects stories published between 1965 and 1978
Followed by The Complete Adventures of Feluda 2
This omnibus edition features the ever-popular adventures of Satyajit Ray’s enduring creation, the professional sleuth Pradosh C. Mitter (Feluda). In his escapades, Feluda is accompanied by his cousin Topshe and the bumbling crime writer Lalmohan Ganguly (Jatayu). From Jaisalmer to Simla, from the Ellora Caves to Varanasi, the trio traverse fascinating locales to unravel one devious crime after another.
Several weeks ago I stumbled upon an article on CrimeReads written several years ago that discussed Satyajit Ray’s Feluda stories. These were short stories written for a young audience, though they also had appeal to adult readers, several of which were adapted for film. I was intrigued by what I read and came away from the piece keen to give the tales a try for myself.
Pradosh C. Mitter, known as Feluda, is a private investigator who raised himself on mystery novels and is keen to test his abilities. He is assisted by his teenaged cousin Topshe and in later stories gains an additional, more comedic sidekick in the form of the writer Lalmohan Ganguly who writes potboiler thrillers as Jatayu. The stories are not dissimilar to Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories which are referenced in the introductions to this collection with Feluda deducing details of people’s lives from details of their dress and general appearance as well as frequent action scenes.
Unlike Holmes however many of the stories feature puzzles that the reader can solve for themselves. While the stories were written for younger readers, some of these are quite cunningly worked and a few may well pose a challenge for any adults who try to tackle them. One of my favorites of the puzzle-driven stories is The Key which is also one of the shortest stories in the collection. That case sees Feluda trying to solve the meaning of a riddle that should enable him to open a lockbox. It’s simple but clever and, perhaps most importantly, it is perfectly paced for the length of the story.
Other tales are driven more by their adventure and suspense elements. For example two of the stories feature tigers on the loose and threats against our heroes made over the telephone are a recurring plot point in many of the earlier stories collected here. Ray writes these sequences well, conveying a sense of the action and building tension superbly. Many of the stories are quite cinematic in scope, no doubt explaining their success on film, though I am a little puzzled as to why Trouble in Gangtok (my favorite story in the collection) has not been adapted when it seems so ideal for film treatment.
This volume, the first of two published by Penguin, collects the stories in chronological order. It is a pretty hefty tome – 785 pages – which makes it a solid contender for the longest book I have reviewed on this blog to date. Happily the quality is pretty consistent throughout and while Lalmohan Ganguly is introduced later in the series, the stories with just Feluda and Topshe are every bit as entertaining as the later ones.
Were I looking for issues I might note that there are some recurring themes in the stories, reflecting that the author was trying to stay away from what he considered to be more adult themes. Art and jewel-based crimes feature heavily here and readers may want to plan to spread out their reading to allow the stories to have their maximum effect. In spite of those common elements though each story has its own elements of setting that help to define it and add some additional interest and appeal.
I had a thoroughly good time reading this and I already have my copy of the second volume so I will look forward to seeing how Ray continued to develop the character. Had these stories been available in translation when I was a preteen discovering Sherlock Holmes, I am sure I would have devoured these exciting, funny and mysterious stories.
The Verdict: I loved this collection of short stories which offer intriguing situations, exciting action and a memorable cast of heroes. While intended for younger readers, I appreciated the stories’ settings and found the puzzles much stronger than expected. The standard of the stories in this first volume is consistently high and, at nearly 800 pages, it offers tremendous value for money.
This first collected volume offers tremendous value and the standard of stories is consistently high.
The stories in this volume are presented in order of publication so we kick things off with the very first Feluda adventure, Danger in Darjeeling. This story begins with Topshe recounting a conversation he witnessed between two men while he was sat waiting for a band to play on the Mall. One of the two old men, Rajen Babu, was telling the other, his lodger, about a threatening letter he had received. Feluda, who fancies himself a detective, decides to visit Rajen Babu to investigate.
Ray writes in one of his Author’s Note at the start of this collection that he had enjoyed the Sherlock Holmes stories growing up and that influence comes over strongly in this first outing for the character. It’s not just that we have in Feluda and Topshe an investigative pair similar to Holmes and Watson but in some of the story beats here. One of the clearest influences comes in a little moment where Feluda demonstrates his deductive skill to Topshe by working out exactly where he must have sat on the Mall.
One of the things that impressed me most about this first story is that Ray manages to provide several credible suspects to have sent that letter in just a handful of pages. While I think adult readers will guess the culprit, I confess I missed the motive and was very pleased to be surprised. I also really enjoyed the way a mask is used in this story. All in all, a good start – it’s easy to see why the character would return…
That return happens in The Emperor’s Ring, a significantly longer and more complex story about the attempted theft of a priceless ring that had once belonged to the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb. Feluda quickly turns his attention to some of the people living near the victim, encountering several interesting figures including an actor, a collector of exotic animals, and a sannyasi.
As with the previous story, Ray does a fine job of making several plausible suspects and even if you instinctively guess the culprit, as I did, the tale is told very well. One of the other notable changes in this story is that we get significantly more action with Feluda not only getting to have a bit of a showdown with the villain but being afforded the use of some gadgetry too. All in all, a very strong second installment!
In Kailash Chowdhury’s Jewel, a well-known shikari writes to Feluda after seeing one of his advertisements. When Feluda and Topshe arrive at his home he explains that he has received a threatening note concerning a valuable jewel he found in some ancient ruins.
This is a much shorter story than the last but this allows us to quickly rattle through the facts and focus on figuring out what is happening. I think it was perhaps unfortunate that we get two jewel-focused stories back-to-back in the collection as it does invite a direct comparison and obviously the characterization and plotting here is significantly simpler.
The explanation provided for what happened is tidy enough but does contain a few rather corny elements that I think add to the sense that we’ve seen this before. I might also say that while both of the previous Feluda tales clued with a gentle touch, here I feel an important idea just appears which isn’t entirely satisfying…
The Statue of Anubis is another antiquity theft story but while the lack of variety in these early stories may be a bit disappointing, I really enjoyed the simplicity and cleverness of this tale.
Feluda is contacted by a man who tells him how since winning a lottery jackpot he has retired and devoted himself to collecting antiquities. Recently he has received several strange notes written in what Feluda identifies as hieroglyphics though he does not recognize the meaning. He does however suggest that these notes may have something to do with a Statue of Anubis that his client recently purchased at auction.
Previous stories had balanced multiple suspects well but this one has a much simpler approach, identifying a rival collector. The solution is logical and quite clever, though one of the clues isn’t entirely fair (ROT13: Sryhqn frrf fbzrguvat jr qba’g orpnhfr Gbcfur zvfvqragvsvrf n cvrpr bs rivqrapr naq qbrfa’g tvir n shyy rabhtu qrfpevcgvba).
I also really enjoy some of the other Holmesian flourishes to this story. Not only do we get a bit of action at the end, there’s also a sequence in which our hero disguises himself and some entertaining antagonism with a police officer. It makes for one of the most entertaining stories so far.
The next story, Trouble in Gangtok, is another longer one and it sees our heroes travel north to the mountainous region of Sikkim to experience some Tibetan culture. On the flight they meet Mr. Bose, a businessman who is traveling to the region to meet with his business partner. They travel together to his hotel only to learn that the man had died a short while before when a car he was traveling in was hit by a rock in a landslide.
I enjoyed this story a lot, both for its interesting setting (the geography and culture of the area is important to the story) and for the elements at play here. The story is paced well, offering multiple problems to be solved and its solution is both clever and satisfying. It’s a shame that this one has yet to be adapted on film as between the travelogue elements and some of the action toward the end, it could be quite interesting visually!
The Golden Fortress is a landmark story, introducing the thriller writer Lalmohan Ganguly who will be a regular in the subsequent tales. This one concerns the attempted kidnapping of a child who may have the gift of recalling experiences from a past life – in this case recalling the burying of treasure near a fort.
It’s a solid adventure though it was the first of the stories in the collection that dragged a little for me. Part of the reason for that is one avenue for misdirection doesn’t work when you know that a character goes on to be an ally for the hero. It probably doesn’t help either that it follows one of the sharpest tales in the collection, however I did enjoy the action leading up to the story’s conclusion though and I appreciated the interesting concept.
I really enjoyed the next story, Incident on the Kalka Mail, in which Feluda is hired to locate the owner of an Air India bag after two near-identical bags get switched during a train journey. One of the things I liked most about this is how it begins with a trivial incident that seems unworthy of Feluda’s involvement but grows into something larger and more complex. There are some wonderful surprises along the way and I think the solution and the story’s payoff are very satisfying.
A Killer in Kailash concerns thefts of statues from ancient temples that are being sold to wealthy overseas visitors. Uncle Sidhu asks Feluda to look into the matter, pointing out that few in the media or police will appreciate the cultural value of those artefacts which don’t have an obvious market value.
It’s a bit of an odd story in that it reads more like an adventure than a detective story yet it doesn’t feature the sort of exciting action or suspense that can be found in some of the previous stories. I did enjoy Feluda getting to show off his ability at disguising himself again though and Ray’s message about the importance of retaining historical sites in tact is communicated effectively.
The Key is a shorter and simpler work but one of the most pleasing in this first collection of stories. Feluda is hired by a man whose miserly uncle died leaving no money but a room filled with instruments. He also left a dying message, saying ‘in… my… name… key… key…’.
The construction of this one is very neat and the length is just about perfect for the type of story being told. I also appreciated that the reader is given everything they need in this one to solve the case for themselves and enjoyed the very neat and tidy conclusion.
Feluda is tasked with solving a riddle to find a treasure when visiting a famous shikari in The Royal Bengal Mystery. Among the complications he will have to deal with is the rumor that a man-eating tiger is living in the forest and before the case is done he will have to explain a man’s death. That aspect of the story is quite compelling, adding suspense and a promise of some action it and certainly was one of the most memorable aspects of the adventure for me.
While this certainly reads as an adventure, the detective story elements here are also quite strong. The solution has some clever features and I once again found strong Holmesian parallels in the payment Feluda extracts from his client at the story’s end.
The Locked Chest is a very short story in which Feluda is summoned to the home of an elderly man who wishes to give him some detective novels. In the course of their conversation he challenges Feluda to solve a puzzle that will enable him to work out the combination to a locked chest. It’s a pretty simple problem perfectly pitched to its target audience.
The Mystery of the Elephant God concerns the theft of a statue of Ganesh from within the home of a man who, just days before, had been offered a sizeable sum for the piece. It’s a solid enough effort and I enjoyed both the way that it pushes Feluda to doubt his own abilities and also an element of the story’s punchline but it is one of the slower-paced stories.
The next story, The Bandits of Bombay, stood out to me as one of the highlights of the collection. It focuses on Lalmohan’s excitement over two film producers looking to acquire the rights to one of his novels with one looking to make a Hindi language version, while the other wants to make a Bengali one.
There is more to the case than that but the focus for me was not on the plot but rather my appreciation for how this story gives Lalmohan an opportunity to appear competent and successful. For those who prefer the character’s more bumbling behavior rest assured that business will swiftly return to usual…
The Mystery of the Walking Dead sees our hero and his friends travel to a remote village where his client’s father has been receiving threats from a mysterious correspondent. There are further complications in terms of a spirtualist and a burglary that takes place a few days later in the story.
I found this story to be less engaging than many of its predecessors though there were some elements of the plot I enjoyed. One of those was the remoteness of the setting which I felt was communicated well, and I also quite liked an initial mistake that the villain makes in their plan which reminded me of one of my favorite crime films.
The penultimate story, The Secret of the Cemetery, finds our heroes visiting an old graveyard where they find the soil of a very old grave disturbed, an unconscious man with their wallet lying on the ground some distance from his body. The situation is intriguing, even though the puzzle element to the story takes a while to come into focus.
What I really liked about the story though was the way it created complexity in the interpersonal relationships and the family histories of the characters we meet and I enjoyed the brief snippet we get of a séance that takes place. The puzzle element of the story isn’t the cleverest or most flashy of the stories found in the collection but it was interesting and I liked the tone of the resolution.
An escaped tiger is on the loose in a village in The Curse of the Goddess. Meanwhile Feluda tries to understand the riddles and coded messages found in the diaries of a dead man who claimed to have been cursed.
This is another story that succeeds in its depiction of character relationships. There are quite a few secrets to uncover even in a relatively short work like this and I found all of them satisfying. Happily though the interpersonal relationships do not come at the expense of the puzzle element of the story which is really strong, packing numerous riddles and word games into the short page count. While many of them could be solved by the target audience, they are cleverly constructed and several explanations eluded me.
Throw in another really satisfying ending and it makes for a great conclusion to this first volume of stories.