For 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 the princely state of Rajpore, the year 1909 began with a headache…

Just as Sikander had begun to doze off, a tactful knock on the door shook him from his slumber. Struggling to contain his annoyance, the Maharaja sat up with a splash.

To his fury, he found that that Charan Singh had returned, but without the requested newspaper.

“What is it now, you tiresome toad?”

The Sikh stood framed in the bathroom doorway, his eyes glowing with excitement. “Sahib, you had better get yourself dressed double quick.”

“Why?” Sikander said, intrigued by the flutter of urgency in his manservant’s ordinarily imperturbable voice. “Whatever is the blasted hurry...?”

“Murder, Your Highness,” Charan Singh replied with a grim smile. “It seems that there has been a murder in Rajpore.”

The Resident’s corpse had been covered hastily with a parrot-green chintz bedspread which some kind soul had draped across his face so that he would be spared the ignominy of having to suffer the stares of gawking strangers.

Solemnly, Sikander lifted one corner of the thin cotton sheet, folding it back neatly to expose the gory sight hidden beneath.

Major Russell had not died well. He lay on his back. His eyes, which were as green as the shroud that had cloaked him, Sikander noted absently, were wide open, bulging from their sockets, staring up at the roof with an expression of shock so palpable that for a moment, the Maharaja couldn’t help but feel sorry for the man.

As if that was not macabre enough, his handsome face was distended into a horrifying rictus, not a grimace of agony but a ghoulish grin, almost as if he had been laughing as death took him. Sikander knew that most corpses tended to look like they were peacefully asleep because, at the time of death, the muscles of the face relaxed, subsiding toward an almost serene appearance. But here, curiously enough, the Major’s jaw was locked rigid, leaving him with an expression as unnatural as a gargoyle’s leer, suggesting that his muscles had contracted, convulsing at the moment of his demise.

He pulled the sheet back farther to reveal that the Major’s body was twisted into a most unnatural posture as well. His back was arched quite distinctly, lifted clear off the bed to leave his weight resting on his heels and his occipitalis. Even more curiously, he was already petrified as stiff as stone, his arms held out in front of him, his hands curled into claws.

It doesn’t make sense, Sikander thought, how could it be rigor mortis quite so soon? The Major had not been dead long enough to justify such rigidity. His body was obviously still only in the second stage of death, although bewilderingly his face had turned an icy shade of blue. Still, putrefaction had not yet begun to cause the corpse to bloat, which would have been the case if he had died more than a few hours ago.

The Maharaja hunched over to take a closer look.

He knew from his studies of Lacassagne that it took roughly between six and twelve hours for gravity to cause a body’s fluids to congeal in the extremities, leaving the upper hemisphere of the victim’s body with a distinct chalk-like pallor. That was certainly not the case here. Although the Major’s lips and cheeks were definitely bluish, his neck and torso were still quite pink, which confirmed his assertion that the man could not have been dead for longer than six hours.

It was obvious that he had choked to death, he inferred, most probably on his own effusions, since the front of his blue-striped cotton nightshirt was crusted thick with dried blood and vomit. Sikander guessed that he must have begun to retch violently before losing consciousness for one last time and drowning in his own bile.

Grimacing, he pulled a perfumed handkerchief from his pocket, clasping it to his face as he turned towards the bedside table. Upon its polished surface, an assortment of objects lay, amongst which were a small glass bottle, a pair of reading spectacles, a tawdry potboiler with the florid title of The Seething Pot, and last but not least, a small ivory snuff box.

First, Sikander examined the glass bottle. He uncorked it to find that it was almost empty. Bringing it to his nostrils, he sniffed at its contents cautiously. The fumes made his eyes water, the raw odour of tincture of opium so strong that immediately he was overcome by momentary dizziness. So the Major was a habitual user of laudanum, he thought with a frown. He would never have guessed, for the man had completely lacked the emaciated pallor associated with an opium addiction.

Just as he was about to replace the bottle where he had found it, an unexpected sparkle from beneath the table distracted him. Leaning forward, he found that the glint had come from the glass fragments of another bottle, a cracked blue decanter of what seemed to be Philip’s Milk of Magnesia, which he guessed had been knocked over and shattered by the Resident just as the ravages of death had seized him.

Biting his lip, the Maharaja knelt down to study these scattered shards.

With a curt snap of his fingers, he called for Charan Singh to bring him his bag. The Sikh entered the room with immense reluctance, placing the valise on the floor and quickly scurrying backwards, letting out a low moan when he glanced at the body on the bed. Wide-eyed, he made a hasty sign against the evil eye, no doubt trying to ward off the Major’s restless spirit, in case it still happened to be lurking in the room.

Snapping open the valise, Sikander rummaged through its contents until he found what he needed: a set of bright red silken envelopes of the sort used by Hindus during religious festivals to give each other gifts. He had ordered a thousand of them made up to utilise as evidence bags. Very carefully, Sikander bent forward to retrieve a glass fragment from the broken bottle of Milk of Magnesia. Next, he collected the bottle of laudanum and the empty snuff box and finally, as an afterthought, from the writing desk, the remnants of the Resident’s dinner and a few drops of sherry, which he poured carefully into a glass test tube, stoppering it with a cork.

Then, turning once more to the Resident’s corpse, Sikander pulled out a small clasp knife and cut off a lock of the dead gentleman’s hair. Next, he carved a narrow scrap from one of his fingernails, and finally helped himself to a scraping of the bloody efflux that caked his face and chest, all of which he bundled carefully into individual silk purses, before tucking them away in the Gladstone bag.

“Well, Huzoor,” Charan Singh said, trying to keep his voice light to obscure his obvious distaste as he watched his master curiously, “what do you think happened to him...?”

“I have the beginnings of a theory,” the Maharaja replied, “but I need some more time.”

“A theory is like a good curry, old man. You have to let it simmer, stay on the boil for a while. Besides,” he beamed genially, “it’s not like the Resident is in a hurry, is he?”

Charan Singh groaned at this awful attempt at humour and shot his master a look of pained disgust. “The fat Superintendent seems to be quite certain that this is a suicide.”

“The Superintendent is a fool,” Sikander retorted, “and I doubt he would know the difference between a suicide and a murder, even if he were the victim of either one.”

“Forgive my impertinence, Your Majesty, but what makes you so sure he is wrong?”

Rolling his eyes, the Maharaja stifled a sigh. Charan Singh was admirably faithful, but he simply could not help but play the role of devil’s advocate. It came to him all too naturally, for it was his innate tendency to accept things at face value. He was a soldier after all, and it did not suit a soldier to ask too many questions.

Sikander on the other hand refused to accept anything at its word. It was his natural condition to question everything, and it would be anathema to his very character if he conceded so easily, not without making a thorough investigation rst.

“I mentioned a man named Michel-Guerry to the Superintendent earlier,” he said indulgently. “Tell me, old man, have you ever heard of him?”

Charan Singh snorted, recognising this question for what it was, the prelude to one of Sikander’s habitual dissertations about some abstruse subject or the other.

“Of course not, Sahib, I am an illiterate soldier. What do I know of these things?”

“Oh, he was a terribly interesting fellow, a Frenchman, the son of a poor building contractor who educated himself and became a lawyer, and then wrote a truly monumental book called An Essay on the Moral Statistics of France.”

Charan Singh mimed a shudder. “It sounds utterly dreadful, Huzoor.”

Sikander nodded, cracking a wry smile. “In many ways it is, a piece of writing so unbearably pedantic that it would put all but the most dedicated scholars to sleep. But at the same time, amidst reams and reams of mind-numbing numbers, Michel-Guerry managed to discover something truly amazing.

“He was an amateur cartographer, you see, a map-maker, and he devised a series of six maps based on fifty years of crime statistics, which was interesting enough in itself, but what really caught my eye was that one of the maps actually charted out the suicides in France according to different regions.”

Sikander paused, staring at Charan Singh, his eyes gleaming with boyish enthusiasm.

“Think of it for a moment, old man. An atlas of suicide. Why, it absolutely boggles the mind!”

“Very good, Sahib, but what in God’s name does your Frenchman’s map have to do with our Major’s death?”

Sikander rolled his eyes. “It has everything to do with this case. You see, while compiling this map, Michel-Guerry collected together all the suicide notes left behind for over a half a decade to try and analyse not just why, but how people decided to kill themselves. And do you know what he realised? That when they took their own lives, young men generally favoured pistols, while older men chose to hang themselves.”

The Maharaja held up one hand, miming a noose.

“You see, my friend, the fact is that when it comes to suicide, males resort to poison very, very rarely. It’s a woman’s way out, not a man’s.”

“Poison!” Charan Singh gawked. “Do you mean to say that the Major was poisoned?”

“Yes,” Sikander shrugged, “I am almost certain he was.”

Excerpted with permission from A Very Pukka Murder: The First Maharaja Mystery, Arjun Raj Gaind, HarperCollins India.