You invariably breathe a sigh of relief, as you come to the end of Crimson City, the last addition to the Muzaffar Jang Mysteries, by Madhulika Liddle, for at long last, having run the entire length of the book, the last few pages being literally a hundred meter sprint, finally the serial killer in Shahjahanabad is nabbed, thanks to the timely intervention of Shireen, the newly wed, very intellectual bride of Muzaffar Jang, our 17th Century detective of the Mughal period, in Dilli. Allah be praised!
A rather long detective novel no doubt, but beautifully laced with description of Shahjahanabad, old Dilli, of now, with all its lanes and gallis, havelis, gardens and hamaams, the reader is taken on leisurely walk around, albeit constantly in doubt of every character he encounters along the way, for it is not just one murder, the killer of which is at large, but several killings, all within days, probably only a week, and mostly in and around the same haveli.
At first, the kotwal of Dilli, Khan Sahib is loath to allow his brother-in-law, the brilliant detective by habit, Muzaffar Jang, whom the reader has encountered in all the Muzaffar Jang stories, four in all, in the past, to interfere and poke his nose in matters of this serial killings in Shahjahanabad, but, the young nobleman, with his just married wife, Shireen, find it hard to stay away from the goings on and tend to go on their own quest for the killer, all of which helps to nab the culprit finally.
Not an easy story this one, because of the multiple murders, one after another, with no trace of any apparent motive, nor any tell-tale signs left behind, a maze of happenings, all seeming to connect and yet, totally unconnected, till one comes to the last few pages and in quite a surprising end, the motive and the killer is revealed, which the reader didn’t get a whiff of throughout the novel.
So then, is it okay to read the first few pages of Crimson City and rush to the last few, if one is an impatient reader? Quite obviously no! Such an error would invariably make the reader, lose track of the nail-biting build up and the many frustrations, as one travels along with Muzaffar Jang and Shireen, hurrying here and scurrying there to zero down on the killer, and participating in the gossip of men and women inside the haveli, all making a juicy read, to savour in leisure and abandon of yesteryear, when it was not a compulsion to complete reading within minutes. The author has woven stories inside stories with such adept mastery of story-telling, the reader would be lost, if the entire story with the big surprise at the end, was not read completely.
Of all the Muzaffar Jung series, this book is for keeps. The reason is simple – Liddle has poured her ink thickly on the pages and details of Shahjahanabad, are finely woven into the text. It is a masterpiece of good writing in English by an Indian author, who has made her mark among period detective novel writers worldwide. You may check her out in Wikipedia. In Crimson City, which is a very apt title for this the last of the Muzaffar Jang Stories, the author’s thoughts around issues of religion and communities are expertly delivered in the lines, so that for the conscious reader, a few nuggets of ideology are for keeps as well.
The book suffers from a few drawbacks though. The first being, there are too many characters and one must then have a notebook around to jot down who is related to whom. Second, even at the last, our kotwal sahib’s insistence of his brother-in-laws interference in finding out the killer, is not explained, although it is Muzaffar Jang and his wife’s diligent study and snooping around which finally lead to the killer. Third, one really could not understand why the Hindu element was woven into the tale, and to what purpose? Fourth, was it not possible to have a tighter manuscript, even if that meant, losing out of a purani Dilli, Shahjahanabad experience, of leisure and time in hand? Last, but not the least, the reference to Jesus Christ, in pg 208, needs verification to find out by what name he was called in Shahjahanabad. Or his reference replaced?
However, one must be totally satisfied with this fact, that even if one has never read a Muzaffar Jang story before, this is a standalone book and is a must read, and one to keep forever, as I will. The last finale of the Muzaffar Jang Mysteries, placed in the spring of 1657, left me in tears when I read the last words, in Acknowledgements –
“......And last but not the least, my family, without whose unwavering support and love (even if often biased and blind beyond belief) this book might never have got written.”
Doesn’t that sum up what is in many of our hearts, too?
Title: Crimson City
Author: Madhulika Liddle
Publisher: Hachette India
Price: Rs 296 (in October)
To buy this book Click HERE
Also read: Madhulika Liddle's Blog
Blast from the past: Madhulika Liddle: Engraved in Stone Interview With The Author