A VERY PUKKA MURDER and DEATH AT THE DURBAR by Arjun Raj Gaind

Scottsdale, AZ: Poisoned Pen Press, 2016, 2018, $15.95 in trade paperback.

In his two novels, A Very Pukka Murder and Death at the Durbar, (part of a projected trilogy) well known Indian graphic novelist Arjun Raj Gaind introduces readers to an area of the world and to a time period with which most will be unfamiliar. India in the early twentieth century was a study in stark contrasts. It was a huge land ruled by Britain, yet in the Subcontinent, sixty-five percent of the population had no idea they were ruled by foreigners from a small island half a world away.

India was also a land of great wealth, yet with huge disparity between rich and poor. So much of India’s riches were tied up in the inadequate and politically disconnected hands of the Indian princes (when not siphoned off by the British) of whom there were so many. The princely states ran the gamut in size from huge swaths of territory to little more than the proverbial postage stamp. Princely wealth varied equally dramatically. Compared, however, to the most impoverished Untouchable (the term used prior to the post-colonial Indian constitution when it became Dalit), the rajas, maharajas, nizams, and nawabs might as well have been avatars of the gods, which many were, in fact, considered to be.

It appeared that the sun never set on the British empire, yet It was already in decline. It was buffeted by the winds of social and political change in Britain. The People’s Budget of 1909 attempted to tax heavily the vast wealth of Britain’s upper classes (dukes cost more than dreadnoughts). In turn, it generated the Parliament Act of 1911, which reduced the political power of the House of Lords. The naval arms race with Germany, a race Britain believed she could not afford to lose, caused significant hemorrhaging of funds and forced the British to make their first alliance with a non-European power, the Japanese in 1902. In three short years, to which the author alludes, World War I breaks out, the costs of which undermine the Empire in significant financial, political, and social ways. The repercussions are widely felt in both Britain and India.

In many ways, Arjun Raj Gaind’s novels are personal snapshots of a world that very soon will be dead. Burial will come in the wake of World War II though the ghosts of empire haunt us still.

The novels are also a personal response to a lack of Indian historical mystery sleuths. Until recently, historical mysteries have been neglected, but no more. (Arjun Raj Gaind, “A Very Pukka Murder: Indian Historical Crime Fiction Has Come of Age, These Sleuths Prove, www.firstpost.com, Nov. 13, 2016; accessed 7 March 2018). He gives a good list of other historical mysteries with which an interested reader may follow up.

When A Very Pukka Murder opens, it is New Year’s Day,1909, in the small, princely state of Rajpore. The British Resident, Major William Russell does not answer his valet’s knock. The silence worries his valet. Russell is a strait-laced man of rigid habits and decorum, not one to lie abed. When the valet can neither rouse Russell nor enter the room, bedroom door has to be broken down. The Resident is found dead, clearly murdered. 

Although this death should be a strictly British affair, Maharaja Sikander Singh hears of the singular murder in an apparently locked-from-the-inside room. He leaps into action to investigate, lest he go off his head with boredom, rather like Sherlock Holmes. The Maharaja has been acculturated to appreciate all things French by his late mother, who loved French detective fiction. Her son takes it one step further to studying French detective and forensic methods. There is nothing he loves more than a good murder to which he can put and hone his detecting skills.

He arrives at the Resident’s bungalow, having driven himself in his Rolls-Royce à la Lord Peter Wimsey. Almost immediately, Singh upstages Superintendent Jardine, a red-faced John Bull who wants nothing more than to arrest the first convenient Indian. (Jardine is more devoted to his racism than Lestrade is to the obvious.) Singh discovers the Resident was poisoned by strychnine in the sherry. When Magistrate Lowry suggests the Resident’s death should be cursorily investigated, if at all, the Maharaja takes that as all the encouragement he needs. He seeks to discover all of the Resident’s secrets, which are legion and stereotypically Victorian in their sleaziness. He believes they will lead to the killer. When the Maharaja saves the Resident’s housekeeper from poisoning, it serves as a further spur to overcome all the obstacles and prejudice the British can throw at him, including an investigator coming out from Simla. He discovers that none of the British in Rajpore is as pukka as reputation suggests, but only the presswallah Miller, a Kipling-esque character is unhypocritical, even unapologetic, about it.

Rajpore (not to be confused with Rajpur) falls under British indirect rule. The British made the actual political and policy decisions while leaving the Indian rulers the outward forms of rule. Maharaja Sikander Singh possesses little direct authority, only over his Indian subjects. He exists with the parameters set down by the British, lest he be set aside—a real threat, as will be seen in Death at the Durbar. More explicit explanation of indirect rule would have allowed readers to understand why the post of Resident was so powerful and why Britain’s habit of sending its second-and third-rate sons to India raised social and political tensions. Rajpore may be a backwater, but readers need to know why it and its Maharaja suffer from the dregs of Empire.

In Death at the Durbar, the British are both more and less in evidence. The Durbar of 1911 gathered all the Indian princes together, as if it were an emperor’s court, to receive and recognize George V and his wife Mary as emperor and empress of India. (They were the only British monarchs to go to India tho’ their son when Prince of Wales went out to India on his grand tour of the empire.) Maharaja Sikander Singh has no desire to be at this gaudy, expensive, useless piece of imperial theater. He reciprocates the dislike and disdain both the British and his fellow princes feel for him. As result, he is kept outside the official encampment—until his presence is demanded to deal with the apparent suicide of a nautch girl in the quarters set aside for the king-emperor.  When the Maharaja points out it was murder, not suicide, the viceroy himself commands Singh to discover the murderer before the king-emperor arrives. Not only does he not have much time, he must succeed under the watchful eyes of Captain Campbell of the Coldstream Guards. In methodical, if dizzying, fashion, Sikander Singh interviews the mightiest, wealthiest, craziest, and most ruthless of the maharajas, nizams, and nawabs, plus one maharani, before he realizes that the murderer is much closer to home than he suspected.

Both of these traditional mysteries start out well, bolstered by their unusual setting and protagonist. Furthermore, they begin well in the conventions of Golden Age mystery. They also use a great deal of Indian and Anglo-Indian language—pukka, presswallah, Angrezi, sahibs--that the reader has to get from context. Gaind does not define themj. For me, it gave richness to the narrative, but it will turn some readers off. Maps and glossaries would also have aided the storytelling, especially for the geographically challenged like me.

The storytelling, however, goes awry because both mysteries lose momentum. So many people and things are in motion that it becomes an overwhelming muddle for the reader. Furthermore, the endings prove to be anti-climactic tho’ that is more true for Death at the Durbar. Fundamentally, there are too many characters shallowly and inconsistently portrayed, including the protagonist, and sheer, bloody-minded overwriting.

These defects possibly derive from Arjun Raj Gaind’s experience as a graphic novelist. The graphic novel is an odd hybrid. It is flat and two-dimensional, like text itself, yet it can be as lush in its imagery as movies or television. The illustrator of a graphic novel picks up much of the description of persons and setting, much the way the camera does in film. An attentive reader is able to pick up the contextual clues—posture, expression, body language—to character from the images. The hazards of overwriting become apparent when all of these nonverbal cues have to be written out, especially for an abundance of characters, who, because there are so many, get reduced to ciphers or caricatures. Captain Campbell appears not to have a brain in his head and may only be good for beating up British vermin. The Indian princes all appear to be mad, bad, and dangerous to know. Fewer characters of greater depth, subtlety, and individuality would have driven more suspenseful plots.

The overwriting also leads to errors of structure or language. When dealing with Major Russell’s death, when did the Maharaja arrive? How long is he there? Morning, noon, or afternoon? It becomes problematic when trying to determine when Russell died. Furthermore, there is some question whether the sherry was an oloroso or a manzanilla. Similes and metaphors overreach or fall flat or both—“spineless as an invertebrate” is quite the clunker. Is it venial or venal? The former applies to serious sin that does not quite reach mortal while the latter applies to corruption. Magistrate Lowry’s sins are not venial, but mortal while his public behavior is quite venal. Furthermore, “sassenach” is an insulting Celtic term—found in Irish, Scots, and Welsh—for an Englishman. To apply it to them, as if they were the same and interchangeable with the English, is a grave insult. Whilst in Anglo-Indian, Angrezi (meaning English) is a pejorative term for all the British, it does not follow that British is interchangeable with English. And last,‘Honi soit qui mal y pense”, the motto of the Order of the Garter, is medieval French, not Latin. Did a copyeditor not catch any of these errors, which so destroy the credibility of an author?

These kinds of errors will simply infuriate careful readers, which most serious readers of historical mystery are. They take readers out of the flow of the narrative. After a certain point, impatient readers will walk away. That is a pity, for these novels had the potential to make more readers appreciate the rich, deeply varied cultural and historical traditions of the Subcontinent. To say I was disappointed puts it mildly.

 Copyright KG Whitehurst
webmaster: kgw@KGWhitehurst.com