A malicious fiend is afoot in early Victorian London. Impoverished residents in the city’s teeming rookery, or slum — awash in desperation, prostitution and drug use — are being ambushed in the night and murdered. As if this random string of homicides was not bad enough, the hapless victims of the nocturnal killer are being decapitated. Their headless bodies are the only evidence left behind. In “The Thing about Thugs” Indian author Tabish Khair limns an engrossing, multifaceted thriller enriched by a diverse cast of colorful characters. It is his first novel to appear in the United States.
Who would want to take the heads of the dead so grimly dispatched, and for what purpose? Are they being collected as gruesome souvenirs or for use in some ungodly rite? Surely, the common wisdom goes, no civilized white Englishman could possibly be party to such barbarism. It must be the work of a dark-hued colonial, drawn to the capitol city like so many other recently arrived foreigners from some far-flung province of Britain’s sprawling empire. It would seem this mad man has brought his heinous ways and primitive pagan practices along with him. Or that’s the notion stirred up by the media, which feeds voraciously on the frightening spree of murders.
Suspicion has fallen upon Amir Ali, a young man who has been brought from India to London by an amiable gentleman named Captain William Meadows. Amir has captivated the Englishman by detailing his life as a member of the murderous Thuggee cult — from which we derive our word “thug” — whose members murdered and robbed unsuspecting travelers. In order to fully document Amir’s fascinating tale, Meadows arranges for the young man to accompany him to London. Their discussions of Thug culture are transcribed in detail by Meadows. The good captain also has an interest in phrenology, a doctrine reputing that bumps, ridges and contours of a skull can perhaps determine the personality and behavior of a human being. Amir, the supposedly reformed Thug, will provide Meadows an interesting object of phrenological study as well.
In one exchange the Captain says to Amir, “What is a Thug’s life but a preying upon those weaker than him? Crueller than the tiger, craftier than the fox, with less scruples than a hyena is the Thug.”
Amir ripostes: “Are you English not passionately fond of sporting? A lion, a wolf, an elephant rouses your passion for destruction — in its pursuit you risk body and limb. How much higher game is a Thug’s, and how much more fair, for man is pitted against man, not against a dumb, bewildered beast. And are you not fond of the battles and wars by which you win a town here and a market there? How much less bloody is the occupation of a Thug!”
Elsewhere in the vast city, John May is busily and stealthily obtaining special items for a disguised man whose real name is unknown. He is called only “M’lord” and has an arrogant and aristocratic bearing. They always meet in a private room in a pub named the Prize of War. John May is a resurrectionist, one in the business of exhuming the dead and selling the corpses. In the overcrowded cemeteries of the indigent there is no dearth of bodies. This particular customer wants only heads — more specifically skulls “clean, unstained and dry” — for which he is usually prepared to pay a decent sum. John May is an expert at treating the severed heads and producing acceptable specimens. He has “supplied thirty different types of skulls” to his anonymous buyer.
Exactly what his customer does with them is unknown to John May. All that matters is the money. But M’lord complains that too many of the skulls are common and too much alike. If May cannot provide more exotic and interesting specimens their business relationship will be terminated. After drinks with his body-snatching partner, Shields, and some boozy deliberation, John May concludes that a more audacious method of securing atypical skulls is necessary. This new tack must be undertaken before his shadowy, yet lucrative, client disappears.
The author’s story opens with a description of the home of his grandparents in Phansa, India. His late grandfather had been a doctor and a most learned man. In his rich multilingual library Khair becomes immersed in the sumptuous world of literary classics. “As the Hindi books in my grandfather’s library were few and pedantic, it was mostly English books that I read. Russian and French classics in translation and the Brontës, Austen, Collins, Dickens, Kipling and Conrad.” It is among these treasures that he comes upon “the first piece of the jigsaw I have tried to assemble in this book.” The puzzle is a compelling one that will please any reader who takes up the skein of this dark yet lively tale.