The Damascened Blade

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The Damascened Blade by Barbara Cleverly, book reviewThe time is 1910, the place is India’s North Western Frontier – although strictly speaking under 21st century geography, we’d now call that the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. It’s a wild and isolated place peopled by dangerous tribesmen who have traditions of honour that are alien to western minds. When a small group of military men from the Highlanders are attacked by Pathan tribesmen, the order is given to pull out; to leave the dead and bring out the wounded. And if the wounded can’t be rescued, then don’t leave them to the assault of their merciless attackers. One man falls into a ravine and is left behind. A young soldier disobeys the order to retreat, and heads back to help his comrade who is being tortured. He kills the man’s torturers and then does what he knows he must. He puts the man out of his agony with a bullet to the head. And then……..well then you can sit back for another 280 pages of Barbara Cleverly’s book The Damascened Blade before you’ll finally understand what that was all about and how it’s connected to the plot that follows.

Twelve years later at the isolated fort of Gor Khatri, the commander James Lindsay is waiting for a convoy of visitors. With him is his old friend Joe Sandilands, a British police officer on secondment from Scotland Yard. Joe has been asked to take care of (or as he sees it probably to baby sit) a young American heiress called Lily. Lily has come to India in search of adventure and she’s determined to have it. Joe is more interested in keeping her safe and out of trouble.

Lily is not the only visitor travelling to the fort. There’s Dr Grace Holbrook, en route to an assignment as the personal physician of the Amir of Afghanistan. She’s a remarkable woman, speaking the local languages, at home with both the Brits and the locals, she’s a real one-of-a-kind pioneer. Not quite so well suited to the trip is Sir Edwin Burroughs, a boorish senior Indian civil servant on a fact finding mission to investigate whether British resources are being wisely invested in defending the border. Lord Rathmore is the Chairman of West India Trading and he wants to go to Afghanistan and work out how to fill their markets with British goods. The final visitor heading to the fort is Fred Moore-Simpson of the RAF who wants to examine the prospects for using aircraft to patrol the frontier. The final visitor is one James is looking forward to seeing – his heavily pregnant wife Betty.

Waiting at the fort are two local men, Zeman and Iskander, envoys of the Amir, travelling with a large group of armed escorts. They are charged with the task of meeting up with Dr Grace and taking her safely to the Amir and as such, they are also to be treated as honoured guests. A big dinner is thrown for all the visitors and the next morning, Zeman is found dead. When Iskander refuses to accept the findings of Dr Grace’s hasty autopsy, he takes matters into his own hands. Unless James can deliver to him his friend’s killer by the end of the week, Iskander will kill one of the group at the fort. And James, as the man in charge, is all set to put himself literally in the firing line if he and Joe can’t identify the killer.

I’m not normally a fan of historical crime fiction and I wouldn’t go looking for this genre if the book were not set in India. I’ve read another of Barbara Cleverly’s novels, The Last Kashmiri Rose, which also features Joe Sandilands although it’s many years since I read that one and I recall nothing of the plot and I’d forgotten about Joe. I forget exactly where I got this book, perhaps it was a charity shop, perhaps a swap on Either way, it had sat on my shelf a long time before I found it in my Christmas clear out.

I am fascinated by India and I read all sorts of novels by Indian writers or set in India. I also enjoy the odd crime novel, though if I’m honest, my crime reading leans towards high tech state of the art forensics rather than bumbling old-style sleuthing so I was stepping out of my usual genre rather with The Damascened Blade. However, the location more than made up for the reservations I had about historical crime fiction. The North West Frontier is a fascinating area and I wanted to know more about the area, about the traditions of the tribal groups and the issues Cleverly touches on relating to ‘honour’ and revenge. She brings alive the barren and inhospitable craggy landscape beautifully as well as introducing the colourful world of the harem and the privileged by restricted life of the royal women. Whilst I wouldn’t have wanted to be there with the characters, I did feel as if she’d taken me there alongside them.

In Joe I found a slightly bumbling sleuth, one who seemed as clueless as I was right up to very near the end when he almost seemed to stumble across the truth. In James and Betty, we find the sweet young couple, separated by duty and his first love, the Army. The contrast between Burroughs and Rathmore displayed the conflict between civil service and trade, the challenge of keeping costs under control on one side and the urge to expand a trade empire whilst others worry over a geographic power base. The RAF man represents the onward march of technology and the lady doctor and Lily, the changing roles of women in the empire. As the lone American, Lily is almost as much a foreigner as the local tribesmen, and represents a feisty ‘Annie Oakley’ approach to frontier life and its challenges.

When reading crime fiction I like to know that if I pay attention, it will all make sense eventually. I don’t want to guess too early who the killer or killers might be or I feel cheated. Equally I don’t want to get to the end and think it wouldn’t have been possible in a zillion years to have guessed. The Damascened Blade kept me guessing almost to the end and when the truth was finally revealed, it all slotted into place, tying in the opening chapter with the death of the man in the ravine, and finally giving a reason for all that follows. Is it the most complex and twisting plot I’ve ever read? No, it’s not but it’s good enough. I was there for the mountains, the colour and flavour of the frontier, as well as a good dose of days of the Raj politics and power play, and the book delivered all of these in large doses.

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The Damascened Blade
by Barbara Cleverly

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Written by koshkha

Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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