Book Review: "When the Snow Melts" by Vinod Joseph

A Cat, a Mouse and …. a ball of cheese!

A good thriller supplies the reader with twists, turns and cliffhangers that elicit a note of genuine surprise. More often than not however, the modern “thriller” novel is misinterpreted by authors as a convenient excuse to provide the aforementioned twists, turns and edge-of-fingers cliffhangers at such an alarmingly regular cadence, that one feels the author would have served better as a roadway engineer in the Alps! It reads like a pie stuffed with a lot more than 4-and-20 blackbirds and can best be described as a cacophony of competing voices and characters, each trying to outdo the next in terms of deviousness, suspense and questionable motives. Many current bestseller authors come to mind …

The best thrillers, the ones that leave an undelible mark on the reader’s psyche, are often crafted, than written. Styled as a symphony, the story allows for periods of graceful adagios; providing the reader a chance  to familiarize herself with the characters, their motives and thereby creating a believable immersion into the world that the characters inhabit. Such stories inevitably lead to an explosive coda, justifying their inclusion into the thriller genre. Robert Ludlum, John Le Carre were masters of this style.

Vinod Joseph’s “When the Snow Melts” fortunately belongs to the second category. The story revolves around Ritwik Kumar, a disgraced member of the NATO intelligence community stationed in London, who has no choice but to defect to his erstwhile enemy, the ISI; and his handler Ayub Khan, a British aristrocrat and a rogue member of the ISI who is in league with the Al-Qeada. The story starts off with a chance encounter that morphs into a full-scale defection. Ayub’s familiarity with Ritwik is intrumental in his assignment as Ritwik’s handler. Assisting him are two of his hencemen - Munir, a temperamental Jihadist and Junaid, a cold blooded killing machine with a penchant for abusing his young wife, Nilofer.

Trust and mistrust change hands as both sides struggle to decipher if the other is the ‘real deal’. On one hand, Ritwik certainly wants to come out of this encounter alive - now that he has burnt the last remaining bridge with his past. On the other, Ayub wants to completely rule out the possibility of a double-agent, going as far as resorting to torturing a claustrophobic Ritwik with waterboarding. A cat-and-mouse game of nerves ensues, with the roles of the prey and the predator blurred with every play. Ritwik finds a kindred spirit in the compassionate (and often abused) Nilofer, and their relationship deepens as Ayub’s methods become more brutal.

It is only a matter of time that Ayub discovers the relationship, and manipulates Ritwik into one final act of defiance towards his ex-employers, using Nilofer as a hostage. Ritwik agrees, on the condition that Nilofer not be harmed, and their relationship not be exposed to Junaid. What follows is the fast-paced coda, with an end-game that may not surprise the most ardent fans of the genre. 

What stands out is the author’s ability of complete immersion into the dull, snow laden atmosphere of suburbs in London. The bleak weather provides an appropriate complement to the dire situation Ritwik Kumar finds himself in. The descriptions detailing Ritwik’s torture at the hands of Ayub Khan’s hencemen are very well written, and so also is the budding friendship between Nilofer and Ritwik. However, the climax seems a bit frenzied with too much happening in too few pages. The author has (rightly) avoided the trap of “flashback” stories to connect Ritwik and Ayub, or to describe Ritwik’s current predicament, thereby keeping the plot focused and taut. Highly recommended for a cold, snowy weekend with an endless supply of hot cider!