By Madhulika Liddle. #3 in The Muzaffar Jung Series. Grade B+
The moment I was handed over this book, I was a hundred per cent sure I would love it. History, one of my favourite subjects, combined with a murder. It had all the ingredients for a perfect unputdownable read. And truth be told, Liddle’s novel did not disappoint me at all.
Two years after the Taj Mahal is finally built, many secrets shroud its walls…
In Agra to escort home the beautiful Shireen, Muzaffar Jang – maverick nobleman and ace detective – reluctantly finds himself at the centre of yet another murder investigation when Mumtaz Hassan, a prominent trader, is found dead under mysterious circumstances. The Diwan-i-kul, Mir Jumla, on his way to invade Bijapur, hands the task of finding the killer to Muzaffar. With almost no evidence to work with except an ambiguous scrawl on a scrap of paper found clutched in the dead man’s fist, Muzaffar knows he must find the killer before the Diwan-i-kul returns if he wants to save himself an invitation to a beheading.
As he begins to uncover the dross beneath the golden opulence of the dead man and his murkily amorous past, Muzaffar chances upon another mystery: a long forgotten tale of a woman who vanished inexplicably one evening.
Muzaffar Jang once again pits his wits against an array of potential suspects – even as he loses his heart…
It has been two years since the completion of the famous mausoleum Taj Mahal when Muzaffar Jang visits Agra while accompanying his elder sister Zeenat Begum on her way to Dilli. He has no intention of staying in Agra for more than a week, but circumstances do not favour his intentions, as he reluctantly finds himself in the middle of the murder of a well-known trader, Mumtaz Hassan, soon after he had invited over Jang for a fine dinner. An aristocrat and nobleman, Muzaffar was also well known in his social circle as an amateur detective, and was handed the task of finding the murderer by none other than the Diwan-i-kul (nowadays known as the Prime minister). His investigations lead him to another long-forgotten mystery of a woman who had disappeared years ago, and was never found.
The writing style is vivid, and the settings have been beautifully described with attention to detail. Liddle has included well-researched excerpts from history as well, which brought to life the market-place, havelis, and the beauty of the baghs in Agra during the 17th century. Even the budding romance and courting between Muzaffar and Shireen has been narrated keeping in mind the customs and traditions of that era. As a reader, I found myself engrossed in the sights and smells of Agra while exploring the city with Muzaffar.
”A caparison embroidered in gold; another of fine brown leather – soft as cotton, said the merchant’s plump fingers as they flitted, curling and uncurling in rapid succession. There were saddlecloths of chintz, quilted and finely embroidered; flocked yalpusts to decorate horses for festivals – or for the supreme honour of carrying an amir to his wedding – and metal rings in the shape of bells, to be attached to fetlocks.”
Liddle, more famously known as a short story writer, has done well in writing a full-fledged novel. The third in the series of the Muzaffar Jang detective series, Engraved in Stone serves well as a stand-alone read as well. Jang, more often than not reminded me of the famous Hercule Poirot, both sharing the knack of keeping in mind small details, which may seem insignificant to the untrained eye, but eventually prove to be the key to solving the case.
The novel did take more than its fair share of chapters to reach a point where I could not put it down, and that too was only in the last three or four chapters. It is not the typical thriller with blood and gore, but more of a mind game. Certain section of the story made it seem like the author was rambling, which definitely slowed down the pace of the story.
All in all, Engraved in Stone made for an interesting and captivating, though slow read.