Mumbai exerts a vice-like grip on the imaginations of India's English-language writers. Its cosmopolitanism, gangsters, film stars, riots, poverty, wealth and forbidding scale (19 million inhabitants and counting) provide abundant food on which its mostly expatriate chroniclers can feast. For Salman Rushdie, Mumbai has been a city of "mixed-up, mongrel joy"; for Rohinton Mistry, the bitter backdrop for despairing meditations on family and fate. Last year, Suketu Mehta served up a pungent slice of non-fiction about the metropolis's rancid underbelly in Maximum City. Now Vikram Chandra, in a book that reportedly took seven years to write and won him a $1m advance in the US, seeks to capture the whole boiling stew of Mumbai and its criminal underworld in one giant, 900-page narrative.
Chandra has been down these streets before. In 1997, two years after his sprawling, fantastical debut Red Earth and Pouring Rain, he produced Love and Longing in Bombay, a taut collection of linked short stories about the lives of some of the city's modern inhabitants. One of the features of that book was the number of genres Chandra was happy to experiment with in his trawl through Mumbai's labyrinthine streets. In Sac red Games he is at it again, mixing the social sweep of the Victorian novel with the narrative drive and discipline of the thriller. The combination is not always a happy one.
The two central characters are a Sikh policeman named Sartaj Singh (who also appears in Love and Longing in Bombay) and a ruthless Hindu criminal called Ganesh Gaitonde, "gangster, boss of the G-company and wily and eternal survivor", who has returned to Mumbai after several years away. The two - both outsiders, and cast by Chandra as mirror images - meet knowingly only once, at the very beginning of the novel, via the security camera attached to Gaitonde's bunker. He is inside, cornered but still taunting the police; Sartaj is outside, calmly engaging him in conversation while he waits for a bulldozer. When the bunker door is finally breached, Sartaj finds two dead bodies inside - an unknown woman shot once in the chest and the seated figure of Gaitonde, a pistol in his left hand and the contents of his head sprayed over the bunker's expensively decorated white ceiling. The rest of the book revolves around three linked mysteries about the former criminal mastermind: "why he was here, why he killed himself, what he was looking for".
Chandra's narrative proceeds via alternating chapters, one following Sartaj as he juggles his investigations into Gaitonde's past with more mundane cases, the other an awkwardly introduced first-person narrative by the "spirit" of Gaitonde as he looks back over his irresistible rise. On to this superstructure, Chandra pins several sub-plots - a slum murder, the blackmailing of an air hostess, the attempts by a local wheeler-dealer to use Sartaj to gain influence - and a long procession of minor characters.
Chandra is a subtle, undemonstrative writer, and the novel has many virtues, not least its depiction of the city's endemic corruption. Everyone is on the make in Mumbai, and as the book develops, the web linking police and politicians with criminals and gangsters becomes ever more complex and convincing. Moral relativism is rife: the upright Sartaj prides himself on having killed just two men in his career, and is seen by his colleagues as odd for taking only small bribes when fistfuls of notes are on offer. "When the whole world is dirty, bhai, you have to get dirty to do any cleaning," explains one particularly venal politician to Gaitonde, a sentiment that is repeated time and again. And when, in one of the book's most potent images, Sartaj tries to cleanse himself of an ingrained feeling of grime, he does so by using his girlfriend's expensive mud-pack facial treatment.
The novel is acute, too, on the subtleties of caste and class, on the hold Bollywood has on Indians' imaginations, and on the provisional nature of life in a city of such size and squalor. But for all these virtues, and for all the energy Chandra invests in his increasingly ornate plot, the novel remains curiously flat. Partly it is a question of tone: deliberately eschewing the fevered imagery of some of Red Earth and Pouring Rain, Chandra takes the temperature of the city in measured, matter-of-fact prose. The effect is deadening, muffling the noises of the streets and flattening the city's stark contours. Often the text does not rise above the dour, heavy tread of the conventional thriller, and there are too many infelicities of style - water falls "in happy gushes", rush-hour traffic coils around the streets but then stiffens "into a congealed mass". Chandra's characterisation, too, can be uncertain (Gaitonde, in particular, never rises off the page) and the story, which often gets lost amid the social exposition, becomes by the end just plain silly.
But it is the sheer scale of the project that finally defeats Chandra. He cannot leave a detail alone, cannot pass a side street without wandering down it to see what he can find. The result is a novel that sprawls as fatally as the city it seeks so resolutely to encapsulate.
Andrew Holgate is deputy literary editor of the Sunday Times