A rainy afternoon, the world shut out, hot coffee and a paperback mystery—The Englishman’s Cameo. Surely, my pleasures are secure. What, after all, can go wrong with murder and mayhem in Shahjahan’s Dilli?
Two hours later, the question is no longer rhetorical. Emerging clueless from the labyrinth, I look back, in puzzlement. All the props are present and correct. Muzaffar Jang, our dashing young detective, is equally at home with the elegance of courtly life and the dregs of Shahjahanabad’s higgledy-piggledy lanes. The murder of an unpleasant man takes him to the boudoir of Delhi’s most notorious courtesan. In the best traditions of fiction, she’s seductive, venal, solitary—and suddenly dead. The two murders are linked, of course, and one of the more tangible links is a jewel found in the dead woman’s possession—the eponymous cameo. These are the dots. Why then such difficulty in connecting them?
The writer is too distracted by the joys of Shahjahanabad—etiquette, jewels, couture, all that makes research so much fun—to pay any attention to the writing. The reader is left ensnared in loopy sentences while an arbitrary garnish of un-glossed Urdu imposes the surreal vibe of Edward Lear’s immortal Cummerbund. Muzaffar has to rassle past all this in prose too viscous for pace. A nice guy like him deserves a murder that has less Mughal and more mystery.