Interview with Vish Dhamija, author of "Prisoner's Dilemma"
on Feb 10, 2022
Vish Dhamija is the bestselling author of ten works of crime fiction, including Unlawful Justice, Bhendi Bazaar, The Mogul, The Heist Artist and Doosra. He is frequently referred to in the Indian press as the ‘master of crime and courtroom drama’. In August 2015, after the release of his first legal thriller, Déjà Karma, Glimpse magazine called him ‘India’s John Grisham’ for stimulating the genre of legal fiction in India. Vish lives in London with his wife, Nidhi.
Ques: Tell us something about your new book Prisoner's Dilemma?
The ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ is a concept in game theory in economics. It demonstrates
that, two entirely rational individuals might not cooperate even if it is in their best
interest. It is so because they do not get to communicate with each other, and
irrespective of how close to each other they are, they end up distrusting their
In my story, Bipin Desai and Anuj Shastri are two friends who concoct a plan to rob
a van full of cash and manage to get away with a loot of over one crore rupees. The
two are arrested within days, but the cash is still nowhere to be found. Enter Senior
Inspector Arfy Khan, who has only forty-eight hours to make Bipin and Anuj confess
to their crime by convincing one of them to go against the other. The two friends
only have to keep their calm and their stories straight in front of the police. But
there is one major obstacle: Arfy isn’t allowing Bipin and Anuj or their lawyers to
see or talk to each other. It’s all mind games from thereon.
Ques: You’ve been known for stimulating the genre of legal fiction in India.
How’s this new book different from other crime thrillers that you’ve written
Crime fiction can cover a lot of subsections of crime. Broadly speaking, it can be
about the crime itself, or the investigation, or when the criminal is brought to the
court for trial. Prisoner’s Dilemma is different as it covers an in-between phase
where the investigation is almost complete and the police have apprehended the
suspects, but are struggling to find damning evidence to charge the perpetrators
with the crime. And the stolen cash is missing. The policeman in the story, Arfy
Khan, is playing mind games with the two suspects expecting either of them to
confess. The story begins after the burglary and the arrest of the perpetrators, so
this novel is neither simply about the cleverness of the heist nor the details of the
police investigation, although I’ve covered those elements to give readers the
complete picture. However, the nub of the story is psychological manipulation, so
whoever blinks first, loses.
Ques: If you were in the shoes of Bipin Desai and Anuj Shastri, would you
choose freedom over friendship?
Clever question. And while it might appear to be simple choice, it is not. It’s not quite
as black and white as one might think it to be. However, to answer your
question—how can I be of any help to my friend if I am not free myself?
Ques: Does the conclusion of a thriller define the quality of the novel?
Not necessarily. I have always advocated that it is not about a happy ending, or any
conclusion for that matter; it is about a good story. The true test of a good novel is:
Is the story interesting enough for the reader (or viewer, as the case may be) to stay
engaged until the end? How you wish to see a story conclude can be different from how I see it. In fact, looking back at the conclusion in one of the books I wrote five
years ago, I now think it should have been different. So your own perception today
might not be the same a few years later.
Ques: Over the years, how have you strengthened yourself as a crime fiction
I read a lot—about 50-60 crime novels a year. And I watch a lot of crime series. One
of the exciting ways to keep stories fresh is to explore various sub-genres: legal and
psychological thrillers, crime capers, heist stories, cozy mysteries, police
procedurals, to name a few. Meaningful subplots also strengthen the story. I also
make it a point to create memorable characters that tell the story. My Rita Ferreira
novels are as much about Rita as they are about the cases she works on. Another
key to making a story exceptional is changing the narrative style—from the first
person to the third person and sometimes a mix of the two. Also, I do not keep to
linear storytelling; I shift the narrative between the past and the present to augment
readers’ interest. There are various other tools to explore and experiment with. One
more thing: research. Always do your homework before you start.
Ques: Your books, Bhendi Bazaar, Doosra & Lipstick, are going to be adapted
into digital series soon. Heist Artist and Unlawful Justice have been optioned
for adaptation as well. What would you like to say about this new
It feels great. The fact that my stories can be adapted to screen feels good since the
reach of the screen is far more than that of book. It is an endorsement that they are
well plotted, with believable characters and enough details. Besides, recognition of
any kind is positive reinforcement. It encourages me to write more. However, I’m
frustrated that Covid has delayed the filming, so I’m looking forward to 2023.
Ques: What does it take to pen down a legal thriller?
Be realistic. Granted, it’s fiction, but it needs to be believable. Thirty years ago, you
could have got away without doing the kind of research it requires now. Anyone
with a smartphone and a one-bar 2G-connection can search the web if they think
something doesn’t make sense. Also, talk to lawyers and, if possible, befriend them.
In my experience, all experts are willing to extend help if they think the request is
genuine. I call my lawyer friends all the time. Don’t be afraid to ask.
Ques: What impact do psychological thrillers have on human minds?
None. To clarify, I do not write psychological horror. Psychological thrillers use
misdirection to catch the unguarded reader. Omission is one of the techniques
employed whereby we completely shut out a part of narrative without the reader
realising it. Other techniques often used to misdirect are split time frames or an
unreliable narrator. Trust me, none of these are meant to mess with readers’
mind—they are merely to surprise the readers at the conclusion.