Death at the Durbar: Maharaja-sleuth Sikander Singh finds himself summoned to solve a murder

Editor's note: Arjun Raj Gaind is the author of the Maharaja Mysteries, which follow the adventures of Maharaja Sikander Singh. Set in the times of the British Raj against the backdrop of Princely India, Death at the Durbar follows A Very Pukka Murder, the first installment in the series.

A vast tent city has been built where a grand durbar is being hosted to celebrate the coronation of George V, the first monarch to travel to India from England. Maharajas and nawabs from all over India have gathered. Maharaja Sikander Singh of Rajpore is frustrated amid all these preparations -- only to find himself whisked away by British officers and requested by the Viceroy to put his detective skills to use. Many suspects, a dead nautch-girl, a variety of motives — Sikander finds all these once he agrees to take on the case, but will he regret it?

Death at the Durbar is published by Harper Collins in India and Poisoned Pen Press.

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‘Might I have a drink, Your Highness?’

Sikander could not but help be amused by the man’s effrontery. In spite of the fact that every one of his instincts was telling him not to trust the Captain one bit, he found himself beginning to like this Campbell fellow. True, he was too presumptuous, but the man had a devil-may-care style to him, a cocky charm that Sikander could appreciate. He was astute enough to recognise a kindred spirit when he saw one. More than once, he had been called a rogue and a knave, and now, he saw the same quality in Captain Campbell—that willingness to ignore what anyone thought and march to the beat of your own drum.

‘Aren’t you on duty, Captain? Is it not forbidden to indulge in spirits while in uniform?’

‘Ordinarily, I would agree, but this once, let us make an exception.’ He rubbed at his throat. ‘I am afraid the ride over has left me quite parched, and frankly, I won’t tell if you don’t.’

‘In that case, by all means, help yourself!’ Sikander nodded, gesturing one hand towards the bottle of Abele. His lips could not help but curve into a smile as the Captain made a great show of picking up the bottle and sniffing its contents. After clucking his tongue appreciatively, he decanted a very generous measure into a slim tulip. ‘To the unknown, sir,’ he exclaimed before quaffing the entire glassful in one Herculean swig.

‘What about your friend?’ Sikander pointed at the lieutenant, who was watching them with a dangerous glower, obviously still ticked off at having been spoken to like a child. ‘Wouldn’t he care for a glass?’

‘Oh, I doubt it,’ Campbell replied. ‘Young Munro has a very narrow view of duty, I am sorry to report. He is a devil for always doing the right thing.’

‘And you are not?’

‘I have my moments, sir, but, not unlike yourself, I am a pragmatist, first and last.’

With that declaration, he proceeded to pour himself another glass of wine.

‘The gentleman who sent us to fetch you warned me you would not agree to come along quite so meekly. If that was the case, then I was instructed to say,’ Campbell straightened up, and recited in a lilting baritone, ‘You must fathom the ocean; it contains all you need and desire. Why soil your hands searching the little ponds?’

Sikander’s back stiffened, and his smile wilted. He recognised that particular couplet all too well. It was a quotation from one of his favourite poets, the great Sufi mystic Farid, describing the difficult path a seeker after truth must follow, explaining how he must learn to ignore the obvious and teach himself to recognise the greater, higher meanings hidden beneath the mundane.

Not only was it a fine stanza, but in this case it offered a palpable clue as to who had dispatched these two officers.

There was only one man who was aware of Sikander’s love of Farid’s poetry, and who had the wherewithal to send a Coldstream Captain scurrying about like a errand boy. And the worst part was that Sikander owed him a damn favour, which meant he could not in good conscience ignore this summons, no matter how intrusive it might be.

He felt his insatiable curiosity flare to life, a ravenous anticipation gnawing at the pit of his stomach. This was Sikander’s most telling weakness, his greatest vice. Gold he was content to leave to the Nizam of Hyderabad, wine to the Gaekwad boys, polo ponies to his cousin Bhupinder of Patiala, and fast women to his dearest friend, Jagatjit of Kapurthala. But when it came to riddles, try as he might, Sikander just could not resist. They tantalised him, the way the slightest scent of a Château d’Yquem could move an oenophile to tears, or the merest taste of an Istrian truffle elevate a gourmand to ecstasy. The unknown, the enigmatic, the arcane, they sang to him, a litany quite as compelling as Circe’s song.

If my guess about the identity of the man behind this cryptic message is indeed correct, he thought, then there was only one logical explanation why this mismatched pair had been sent to get him.

It did not take a detective to deduce that some sort of garbar was afoot, but the fact that his particular abilities were required could only mean one thing: Someone was dead.

And, judging by the urgency, he thought, it had to be someone rather important.

Read the first part of the chapter here, and the second here.


Updated Date: Feb 17, 2018 12:25 PM

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