Have you met Marcus Didius Falco? Perhaps not, since he was born a while ago, in March 41AD, to be precise. He quit the Roman army soon after the Boudiccan Revolt and became a private investigator who via a series of adventures — and some misadventures — is attached to the royal court, a go-to man that Emperor Vespasian consults whenever life gets rather more complicated than usual and there is blood shed under circumstances that are not easily understood. Falco has a significant other in Helena, daughter of a senator, a very unsuitable and unacceptable match in the strict class system of the time, who helps him in his work and keeps him coming back home to her.
Muzaffar Jung would like Falco. They are both rather James Bondish in their charm, doggedness and ability, even though they come from different times, cultures and contexts, and show the same persistence and determination, slogging on until the end and always aiming to win, no matter how “unsolvable” the case. And success always comes with a few bruises, some friends made, others lost, and lots of questions that are usually answered. There is also a lovely lady involved in the Indian story, the veiled and spunky Shireen. Muzaffar Jung is a detective in 17th century Mughal India, a charmer you may have met in The Englishman’s Cameo (2009) or The Eighth Guest and Other Muzaffar Jung Mysteries (2011). He has class, he has style, he has looks, he has brains…what more does an investigator need?
This tale starts with blood and has a happy ending, literally speaking — not only is the murder mystery solved, but MJ (as I found myself calling him very soon into the book) finds a lady he can — and does — love. It starts in a livestock bazaar in Agra, where MJ is looking for a horse, since his own has become lame with infection. A close friend finds him there and wants to borrow one of his horses. Muzaffar goes home with Akram and meets his uncle, Mumtaz Hassan, in his opulent, OTT home, decorated lavishly, showing the greater use of money than sense. And as the two friends talk, bond, share a meal, there is something dark lurking in the shadows. And no, it is not a minion or a dog, but a murderer. Mumtaz Hassan is killed, his assassin melting into the landscape as if he — or she — were a djinn who had vanished into the mists. In hot pursuit, MJ stumbles over another mystery, this one much older and far more difficult to unravel — a missing woman. As the stories so many people tell get tangled, much like the fishing nets in the Yamuna, and slowly and painstakingly untangled, many truths are revealed, many secrets uncovered. The murderer is found, the woman’s story is heard, the villains punished. And delightfully, albeit expectedly, MJ finds love in the lovely shape and face of Shireen, the lady who is being mooted to him as a potential bride by his fond and understanding aunt.
But what is most interesting is not the story itself. It is the way that story is told. Liddle writes easily, relaxedly, naturally, setting the scene in 17th century Agra, shortly after the Taj Mahal was built, without sounding like a history lesson or a museum lecture.
The language is contemporary and fresh; the way of thought and movement is too. The narrative style is casual, the stuff of which young urban linguistic India is made. Yes, there is a setting that is an old India, the fashions, the class structure, the monuments…everything works to place MJ in his time and place, but without any labouring, with no hint of academic mustiness. There are no guns, no microscopes, no fingerprinting, but the characters could be set in modern urban India. There are fun moments — as when jokes are made, myths busted (remember that story every tour guide tells how the hands of the craftsmen who decorated the Taj were cut off after the job was done?), when MJ realises that he kinda-maybe-perhaps-could be is in at least like if not love with Shireen, whose hands he has seen and wants to see more of, whose face is still a mystery waiting to be solved.
There is plenty for the amateur historian, with lots of tadka thrown in. The author describes the class system through the contrasts between rich and poor, the clothes, the manners, the food, the housing, the attitude of those who have it all and those who have nothing at all. She makes it almost photo-imagery when she talks about the fabric of a choga or the affection between a man and his pet. And MJ makes the perfect detective, and man, as he gently but determinedly coaxes truth from people, or finds Shireen slowly becoming a vital part of his life and every thought. He makes a good jasoos , a good interrogator, a good detective and a good friend. But will he be a good husband? We wait to find out in the next Muzaffar Jung mystery!
Engraved in Stone, Madhulika Liddle, Hachette, Rs.395.