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Book excerpt from Arjun Raj Gaind’s new murder mystery Death at The Durbar

In his second outing, Arjun Gaind’s British-era detective, Maharaja Sikander Singh of Rajpore, investigates the gruesome murder of a dancing girl on the eve of the grand Durbar in Delhi to celebrate the coronation of George V. In this excerpt, Sikander arrives at the crime scene to make remarkable revelations using his exceptional observational skills.

books Updated: Feb 28, 2018 12:27 IST
Arjun Raj Gaind
Arjun Raj Gaind
Hindustan Times
Arjun Raj Gaind,Death at The Durbar,Maharaja Sikander Singh of Rajpore
Maharaja Sikander Singh of Rajpore made his sleuthing debut in Arjun Raj Gaind’s novel A Very Pukka Murder: A Maharaja Mystery (2016).

‘Give me a moment to take a look around,’ Sikander said.

With those words, his face seemed to change, a dispassionate mask descending. From the inside pocket of his jacket, he pulled a pair of gloves, slipping them carefully onto his hands. However, rather than approaching the body directly, he chose to make a slow circuit of the room, touching a tapestry here, caressing a piece of marble statuary there.

To those unfamiliar with his techniques, it might have looked like Sikander was wasting time, but this was actually a vital part of his process, a ritual he had devised in imitation of the legendary Eugene Vidocq. In his opinion, there was no better way to get a sense of the scene, to discern if there were any clues worth recording, any traces left behind by the killer that might offer an indication of his identity.

To Sikander’s chagrin, nothing seemed particularly out of the ordinary. There was no mess, no blood, no signs of a struggle. Even the rug beneath the corpse, a Savonnerie, he noted absently, was unwrinkled.

Out of the periphery of his vision, he noticed that Commissioner French and O’Dwyer had followed him into the room. They stood by the door, whispering to each other, eyeing him with nearly identical expressions of smirking contempt. Frowning, Sikander bit back his irritation and finally approached the corpse. Rather than examining it directly, he came to a stop behind it, some two feet away.

Closing his eyes, he tried to clear his mind, to sharpen his ephemeral senses to a razor’s edge, seeking that elusive state of clarity that Fichte and the German Idealists had described as higher intuition.

Sikander took a deep breath, trying his mightiest to ignore their carping. As always, the desolation he felt when faced with a corpse gripped him. How could he not but surrender to tragedy?

‘What on earth is he doing?’ the commissioner’s voice exclaimed behind him. ‘Is he working some kind of fakir’s trick?’

‘This is a waste of time, I declare,’ O’Dwyer’s deep bass chimed in. ‘The man is a poseur.’

‘Shhh, don’t distract him.’ Malik Umar spoke this time, offering encouragement. ‘Go on, old boy, work your magic.’

Sikander took a deep breath, trying his mightiest to ignore their carping. As always, the desolation he felt when faced with a corpse gripped him. How could he not but surrender to tragedy? Just yesterday, this had been a living, breathing human being, but now, all that remained was rotting meat, all its dreams and hopes snuffed out, extinguished in one fell stroke.

This melancholy did not last long. Very quickly, it was transformed into a familiar tingling, the excitement that always seized him when he was about to begin an investigation, followed by a pang of regret as he chastised himself for being such a ghoul.

Delicately, like a sculptor making his first cut, Sikander reached out and turned the body until it faced him. She was little more than a girl, really, not more than nineteen, her arms still soft with pubescent fat. In life, she must have been very beautiful. He could detect some vestiges of that beauty, since below the neck she was entirely naked, except for a belt of gold mohurs surrounding her hips. Her breasts were perfect, dark-nippled and as voluptuous as ripe mangoes, her stomach taut, crowned by a pearl ensconced in her navel, her waist so tiny that he could have encompassed it with one hand, and her legs supple, as strong and slender as willow branches.

Above the shoulders, she was a monstrosity. The pashmina scarf bound around her neck had bitten deep into her throat, leaving her face suffused, bloated to almost twice its size. Her mouth was twisted open in a raw scream of horror.

From between her teeth, her tongue protruded, swollen as fat as a slug. But it was her eyes that made Sikander gasp, so filled with accusation that, involuntarily, he broke his own cardinal rule and reached out to gently shut her eyelids, to block out the recrimination in those awful, staring eyes. ...

‘I have seen all that I need to,’ he declared, shaking his head sorrowfully.

‘What on earth?’ Commissioner French erupted. ‘Aren’t you going to poke around a bit? Take some samples and so forth. Isn’t that what you detective fellows are supposed to do?’

‘What a crock!’ O’Dwyer scoffed, making no effort to hide his dubiety. ‘They say you are a veritable magician, Mr. Singh. Go on then, dazzle the lot of us, if you can, unless of course you’re a rank pretender.’

O’Dwyer’s words stung him, making his hackles rise. He knew it was silly to take such obvious bait, but for once, suppressing his better instincts, Sikander decided to show off a bit, if for no other reason than to put the ponderous Irishman in his place.

‘Very well, if you insist! The girl is about eighteen, of Kashmiri origin, and she was very definitely murdered.’

‘Are you certain of that?’ The Commissioner interjected.

‘She could have killed herself, yes?’

‘No, she was strangled, of that I am certain. Not more than ten hours ago, most likely a little before dawn this very morning. Also, the killer is a man, not more than thirty-five years old, between five-foot-eight and six feet tall. He is a meat-eater, I reckon, most likely either a soldier or sailor with broad shoulders and a strong build. Also, he was her lover. I am almost certain of that.’

This analysis was greeted by a stunned silence, broken only by a loud snort from the commissioner.

‘Good God, are you making all that up?’ He gave Sikander a piercing scowl. ‘Would you care to explain yourself, Mr. Singh? How have you arrived at these outlandish conclusions?’

‘I doubt you would understand me, Mr. French. You don’t seem terribly bright.’

‘Oh, do stop needling the commissioner, Sikander,’ Malik Umar chimed in, unable to hide a smile.

‘Please, Mr. Singh,’ O’Dwyer added, ‘for those of us who are amateurs, would you kindly elaborate?’

‘Very well! Let us begin with the fact that she was strangled. That much is really quite obvious, from the livid ligature marks circling her throat and neck. If you take a careful look, beneath the striations left by the pashmina, you will see the imprint of a man’s fingers, left behind when the killer throttled the life from her. Even though he most likely strung her up precisely to disguise what had truly occurred, thankfully he could not erase every trace left behind.’

‘As for the time of death, the lividity of the girl’s flesh suggests she was killed within the last twenty hours, and since her skin is still supple and rigor mortis has only now begun to set in, I can conclude that she died very recently, most likely early this morning.’

‘The imprints around her neck are quite widely spaced, which indicates the killer had large hands and a strong grip, which makes me believe he was either a sailor or a soldier, someone with fingers tempered to steel, whether from handling ropes or reins.’

‘Now, to the identity of her killer. It had to be a man who throttled her. She was young, in her prime and considerably healthy, judging by her physique, which means the killer had to be someone larger and stronger than her, not a woman. And of course, we must consider the violence of the crime. The imprints around her neck are quite widely spaced, which indicates the killer had large hands and a strong grip, which makes me believe he was either a sailor or a soldier, someone with fingers tempered to steel, whether from handling ropes or reins. Also, the poor child’s neck was broken, not just in one place, but two, which in turn suggests that the person who did this is uncommonly strong, and most likely a young man. Strangulation is a crime of heat and passion. Old men rarely act on such savage impulses, and even then, they are rarely quite so vicious.’

‘As for the inference to his height, she is almost five and a half feet tall. However, the inclination of the marks around her neck are angled downwards, which suggests that her murderer was taller. This what I think happened. I believe that our killer overpowered her, and while he was throttling the life from her, he lifted her bodily off the ground, and that is when her neck broke, killing her instantly. Do you see?’

‘But how did you conclude that he was her lover?’ O’Dwyer inquired.

‘That was a piece of carefully calculated guesswork,’Sikander replied. ‘I deduced that from the fact that she is in a state of déshabille, and because I can still smell the sour scent of musk and sweat on her, faint, yes, but perceptible to a nose as discerning as my own.’

‘Pure conjecture!’ the Commissioner growled. ‘Perhaps she was undressing when the killer took her by surprise.

Maybe he despoiled her, eh? Some sort of lust-crazed madman? Did you even consider that?’

‘Ah, but then where are the defensive wounds? There are no bruises on her wrists and arms, no blood under her fingernails, which can only mean that she did not fight him.

That suggests that the killer was known to her, that she felt she had naught to fear from him—a belief, alas, which I think was the very thing that led to her murder.’

O’Dwyer looked about ready to offer argument, to mount another diatribe, but when he realized that there were no refutations he could offer without looking foolish, he snapped his mouth shut, his jaw clicking audibly.

Commissioner Lee French was not quite so graceful.

‘That is all well and good, but nothing that a good policeman could not have pieced together as well. Besides, you don’t have a shred of evidence, do you? Not one clue, not a single lead to chase down?’

‘No, I do not.’ Even as the commissioner puffed up, Sikander gave him a stiff smile. ‘However, there is a very good reason for that. The girl was not killed here, in this room.’

‘What makes you so sure of that?’

‘Have you heard of Locard’s Principle, Mr. French? An interesting fellow, Monsieur Locard. I met him while I was studying in France. As a matter of fact, he was Alexandre Lacassagne’s assistant for some years. He postulated a theory to me once, that every contact leaves behind a trace, that wherever a criminal steps, whatever he touches, whatever he leaves behind, even unconsciously, can be found by an observant investigator and used ultimately as a silent witness against him.’

‘What does that have to do with this poor girl’s murder?’

‘Patience, Commissioner! Just take a look around. Do you see anything out of place? Any signs of a struggle? A girl was strangled to death. Where are the torn tapestries, the broken vases, the shattered furniture? This place is absolutely pristine, is it not?’

The commissioner shrugged. ‘Maybe the killer cleaned up after himself, and got rid of any incriminating evidence!’

‘No, I doubt he had the time.’ Sikander’s jaw hardened. ‘I suspect that she was killed elsewhere and that the body was moved to this location. But why this particular tent? Why this particular camp? Those are the real questions we must find the answers to.’

‘Why would anyone want to embarrass the King and ruin the Durbar?’

Excerpted with permission from Death at the Durbar, Arjun Raj Gaind, Harper Black, HarperCollins India 2018.

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First Published: Feb 28, 2018 12:15 IST