The Return of the Penny Dreadful

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Doctor Dread, Ibne SafiFor many people the discovery of an Urdu penny dreadful may be an eye opener, but Chennai based Blaft publications tied up with Tranquebar to bring out the four novels which belonged to Ibne Safi’s Jasusi Duniya series. Ibne Safi, born in Allahabad district, migrated to Karachi and there steadily churned out four novels a month, the first of which Dil-e-Mujrim, was priced at less than a rupee when it came out the 1940’s. The world he describes is a cosmopolitan one, a city that has no name or location though it is somewhere in Hindustan. This unique metro boasts bars called Arlecchino and Rialto where beautiful girls in short skirts smoke and drink and rub shoulders with criminals of the likes of the evil American Doctor Dread or the four foot high Finch who can masquerade as a monkey thanks to his agility.

The four novels have the mysterious Colonel Faridi in the Sherlock Holmes role with his befuddled assistant Captain Hameed doing his best to keep up. Faridi has a large house, several expensive cars and a kennel stocked with bloodhounds. Hameed, on the other hand, is an inveterate skirtchaser who keeps a pet goat who also provides comic relief, especially when set against the beautiful Police Constable Rekha Larson. He is, in fact, quite often the traditional fall guy.

When Ibne Safi began writing it was the 40’s and 50’s with partition very much on everyone’s mind. His detective fiction provided quick escape from the everyday world and was popular with housewives, autowallahs and academics. There are spectacular murders, kidnappings and pretty girls galore and the four novels chosen here are liberally peppered with diplomats, politicians and rich industrialists. The reader will also find poisonous snakes, poisoned arrows and exploding canisters of deadly gas, a blend of the traditional and the scientific. His books had one aim in mind, to get people to respect the law – people who do not in his stories usually meet sticky ends.

Poisoned Arrow, Ibne SafiIn that respect there is something about Edgar Wallace to them – though Ibne Safi’s direct inspiration was British crime novelist Victor Gunn, the pen name of British novelist Edwy Searles Brooks (1882-1965) who was responsible for a thriller series starring the detective Ironsides Cromwell.

Until Ibne Safi began writing there were no Urdu crime thrillers, discovering that fact at a literary convention, he introduced a different genre into literature. Translator Shamsur Rahman Faruqi, well known amongst Karachi’s Urdu literati confessed that he had a difficult time translating Ibne Safi because of his puns which occasionally combined couplets from Ghalib and Mir. That may escape most readers who will possibly put the books down as quick entertaining reads without much sophistication to them.

The covers of the series are based on old covers and posters so they have an intriguingly dated look about them. And one can predict fairly confidently that the Ibne Safi series in English will probably provide quite a few readers with page turning entertainment on trains and planes. Eventually perhaps someone will also turn them into films or TV serials.

The Laughing Corpse, Poisoned Arrow, SmokeWater, Doctor Dread by Ibne Safi
Translated by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi
Published by Blaft in association with Tranquebar Press

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Poisoned Arrow, The Laughing Corpse, SmokeWater, Doctor Dread
by Ibne Safi

2 Comments on "The Return of the Penny Dreadful"

  1. Blaft Publications
    30/04/2011 at 05:17 Permalink

    Thanks for the review! Just a note: these titles are available in the UK as eBooks, either for Kindle from the Amazon store or in EPUB format from

  2. Vladimir
    30/04/2011 at 09:59 Permalink

    Thanks for letting me know. I have added some links to ebooks on Amazon US and Amazon UK.

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Written by Anjana Basu
Anjana Basu

Anjana Basu works as an advertising consultant in Calcutta. In 2003, Harper Collins India brought out her novel Curses In Ivory. In 2004, she was awarded a Hawthornden Fellowship in Scotland where she worked on her second novel, Black Tongue, published by Roli in 2007. In February 2010. her children's novel Chinku and the Wolfboy was brought out by Roli. She writes features for travel magazines and reviews for Indian newspapers.

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