Why would a mystery ever be 900 pages? I’m sure there have been some (please respond if you know one)—but really—why? 900 pages suggests Dostoevski or at least Tolstoy.
Vikram Chandra is not Russian, but Sacred Games, his new novel, is, indeed, 900 pages long. I have a theory about why: perhaps Chandra wanted to make sure we got what he was trying to say. Many mysteries are written against a backdrop of geo-political conflict—the cold war, World War II, etc. This book is set mostly in Mumbai, India, with side trips into many other places, most pertinently, the Punjab region of Pakistan and India. It is possible that Chandra thought the average reader from the U.S. wouldn’t have enough knowledge of southern Asia and the Hindu/Sikh/Muslim differences to catch the full impact of his work. So he wrote it all out. Perhaps—but so what. Let us figure it out.
Another theory: Chandra loves to tell stories. And he tells them well. Since I’ve been criticized here for spoilers, I’ll avoid spilling too much plot—suffice to say that about half of the novel is the first-person account of one man’s life. The other half manages to cram in a lot about what you might call too many characters; yet, almost every one is compelling, more than flat ciphers for the plot. 450-odd pages leave plenty of room for developing the motivations of quite a few people. In this way, Chandra is a bit like the Russians I mentioned above (one significant difference is that none of the characters in Sacred Games are named Sasha, making it easier to distinguish them from one another). There’s even a helpful list of the more prominent members of the cast in the pages before the narrative begins.
While definitely using the standard tropes of the mystery, Chandra also dips into moral outrage and social commentary and takes a strong dose of mob fiction. The prose is peppered with Hindi words, which makes the reading a little difficult at first; soon enough you figure out pretty much what they mean from context. There’s also a wonderful (for me) streak of fatalistic ennui; at one point his protagonist asks himself about the corrupt, unjust world he sees: “You wanted to save this? For what? Why?”
Ultimately this is the tale of a few amazing and psychotic megalomaniacs, the trouble they cause for a lot of relatively normal people, and the almost ordinary man who deals with it. The moral is that the small desires—to love, to eat, to sleep—these are all we really need; to ask for more is to court unhappiness, disgrace, and death. It’s a lot of pages for such a pat conclusion. Nonetheless, the ride is usually worth it.