Author: Madhulika Liddle
Reviewer: Ritika Palit
Mystery books often lack the layered prose which usually makes readers pick up their favourite books and re-read them. Yet, readers keep on going back to Sherlock Holmes, keep on picking up those Poirot novels and will still be moved by Father Brown’s impassioned speech to Flambeau. What makes readers return to mystery novels? To look for clues they might have missed in the first reading? To recapture that feeling of amazement and awe when they read the grand denouement by the detective?
Good detective novels, the ones which endure, are firmly ensconced in their humanity and in their atmosphere. Think of The Hound of Baskerville and the loneliness and gauntness of the moors immediately haunt you. Madhulika Liddle’s “The Eighth Guest & Other Muzaffar Jang Mysteries” is defined by its atmosphere. Set in 1656, the stories are written in the era of Shahjahan’s ruling. Liddle subtly mentions the class divisions, the gender divide, the debauchery of the aristocracy, the desperation of poverty. She does so without judgment. She is an author content with just building up the world where her detective lives, and we see the same world with her unbiased eyes. And what a world it is indeed.
Muzaffar Jang, described as a ‘Maverick Mughal Nobleman’, is an oddity in his era. He suffers from intense curiosity, is regardless of social positions, and has friends from all strata of society. This combination often results in his being entangled in mysterious situations. He travels all over Dilli, from the house of noblemen, exquisite gardens, the now-destroyed Begum ki Sarai to small villages with detailed explanations of their water supply, the Royal elephant stables and the imperial atelier. We go with him and get immersed in the flavour of Old Dilli. However, Jang himself remains a stranger to us. We never really empathize with the detective’s need to detect or with his flouting of social conventions. Perhaps little biographical details would help readers warm up to the nobleman more.
The mysteries themselves are quite lightly written, some of them rather blandly obvious, while some do have an interesting background story and can grip a reader. ‘A Pachydermal Puzzle’, which takes place in the Royal Elephant Stables, deserves a special mention. But the plot of the stories seems to take a backseat to the more beautifully detailed description of the world in which the mysteries are set.
Madhulika Liddle has done a marvelous job of researching old Dilli and has presented it to us beautifully. But the setting gives her yet more to explore. This is an unknown world to most readers, and details on political, social and cultural conventions from that era would make further tales more welcome. The mysteries are simple and the author can afford to be more adventurous with her content. However, this book can happily be recommended for a little light reading, if only for the world in which the author takes us.
(Ritika Palit is doing her Ph.D. in Development Economics and reads books to get over that)