Book Review: A VERY PUKKA MURDER By Arjun Raj Gaind
A VERY PUKKA MURDER
By Arjun Raj Gaind
Scottsdale: Poisoned Pen Press, 2016. $26.95
One of India’s best known comic book writers and the originator of several critically acclaimed, bestselling graphic novels, Arjun Raj Gaind is coveting a new audience with A Very Pukka Murder (pukka translates to “proper”)—the first entry in a promising trilogy set against the backdrop of India during the early 1900s. The protagonist, His Highness Farzand-i-Khas-i-Daulat-i-Inglishia Mansur-i-Zaman Maharaja Sikander Singh, Light of Heaven, Sword of Justice, Shield of the Faithful, sole ruler of Rajpore—who will henceforth be referred to simply as Sikander—is king of Rajput, a fictitious kingdom in India’s back country. Sikander lives in an ornate palace where luxuries abound, none of which entirely sate his desire for fast cars, beautiful women, and enigmas of any kind.
As the first day of 1909 unfolds, Sikander is awoken from a stupor to the news that Major William Russell, the English Resident of Rajpore, has been found dead in his bed. Never one to resist the allure of a mystery, Sikander fires up his Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost and makes the sojourn to the English settlement, accompanied by his oversized manservant, Charan Singh. Upon arrival, he finds that the Superintendent of Police, Jardine—a corpulent man of corrupt principles—is prepared to dismiss the death as suicide. Not to be deterred, Sikander—who studied criminology and fancies himself a sleuth of sorts—carefully processes the scene and comes to a wholly different conclusion: that the Resident died as a result of strychnine poisoning.
Despite resistance from the local authorities, Sikander begins interrogating potential witnesses, and soon uncovers a bevy of means, motives, and potential murderers—including factions within Russell’s own team. His unique brand of interrogation is a mix of patience, petulance, and power, the results of which leave him with more questions than answers. Unable to piece together this intricate puzzle through his normal process—a potent indulgence of absinthe and artistry (piano) that often allows him to reach heightened levels of consciousness—Sikander takes to leveling accusations against each suspect in the hopes of eliciting a confession only to find himself further confounded. Not to be outdone by Jardine, or by the special investigator dispatched by the British authorities, Sikander continually reassess the crime as time tick-tocks away.
Sikander’s redemption comes in an extended denouement that leaves his (involuntarily) captive audience equal parts exasperated and enthralled—a Poirot-esque climactic scene in which Gaind both honors tradition and levels humor at it (the transitional period between each faux indictment is punctuated by the serving of another course of food and drink; Sikander forgoes the edibles but imbibes enthusiastically). The culprit is entirely satisfactory (as is the motive), and the resolution suitably debatable, but it’s Sikander’s explanation of the underlying politics, prejudices, and proclivities that will resonate most with readers, who will recognize that they remain painfully relevant in this century.
A Very Pukka Murder is a noteworthy debut for first-time novelist Arjun Raj Gaind, who impressively balances satire with subtext in a plot that is both raucous and heartrending. Not only is Sikander a memorable and engaging lead character, but the world he inhabits—based on the true and sordid history of the British Raj—transcends the page by virtue of the author’s vivid description of time and place. And, given Gaind’s credentials, that’s very proper indeed.—John B. Valeri