I'm going to judge a cover by its book.
The cover of The Thing about Thugs, a new literary thriller by Tabish Khair, gives the wrong impression of the book or not enough of the right impressions.
It's old-fashioned, for one thing, too plain and simple and innocent. I can't place it but I'm sure I read a novel in junior high with a cover very much like this in style, color, and stinginess of information. There's mystery here but no threat. And no blood. And no evil. There's no hint of the horror inside. The Thing About Thugs isn't just a mystery. It's a tale of murder, body snatching, and head hunting. Skulls literally pile up.
The gas streetlamp and the cobblestone street announce that The Thing About Thugs is a period piece set in a city but it doesn't tell for certain that the period is Victorian and the city is London, but not necessarily a historical London, more of a literary London, a Dickensian London, Sherlock Holmes' London, Jekyll and Hyde's London. The lone figure walking away from us is obviously East Indian, which is a clue to the novel's central incongruity, which Khair carefully and steadily turns into a given, the presence of a community of immigrants from all over the empire helping to define a London we might think, based on movies and other books, was populated only by colorful Cockneys and top-hatted proper English gents and their pale and ringletted ladies, as long as those other books aren't by Arthur Conan Doyle. And there's no direct references to those books that are. There's no suggestion of the complexity of the narrative, or the eerie beauty of the prose, or the literariness of the whole conceit.
Novels and stories and poems by the likes of Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Wilkie Collins, Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, and Jane Austen inform the plot, the themes, the structure, and the writing of The Thing About Thugs. Works like The Body-Snatcher and The Man With The Twisted Lip, The Secret Agent, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood can be read between the lines. Which makes The Thing About Thugs sound like a pastiche or a senior honors thesis. It's not. It is, to sum up, what the cover barely hints at, a literary thriller about murder, body snatchers, head hunting, and the disruptions and disquietudes caused by imperialism set in a London more ethnically and culturally diverse than casual viewers of Masterpiece Theatre might expect.
Amir Ali, a young man from a small village in India, is living in London, brought here on a whim by a well-meaning but naive and gullible British Army officer who's given Amir an unusual employment. His job is to live in the officer's house as a servant with one responsibility, to tell the story of his life as a member of a band of murderers and thieves back home, that is to tell his master and whatever audience the officer puts him in front of him things about thugs.
Amir's employer, Captain Meadows is writing a book. Having inherited a sufficient income to retire from the army and live the life of a gentleman of leisure, he's returned to England to devote himself to his intellectual passion, phrenology.
Meadows is something of a maverick in the field, which he and his fellow phrenologists think of as a science. Meadows believes that you can tell a lot about people by reading the bumps and dents on their skulls but not everything. More heretical, at least in the eyes of his rivals in the phrenological debate, he rejects the idea that biology is destiny. He argues that individuals have a degree of freedom in deciding what kind of person they'll be.
This means he thinks it's possible for a good man to turn evil --- shades of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are invoked but not let loose---but, as a good liberal, he prefers to focus on the corollary, that a bad man can reform.
Amir is his prime example.
Meadows has Amir dictating the story of his career as a thug and his reformation and then repeating it to meetings of the society of phrenologists Meadows hopes to win over to his reformist views. The thing about this reformed thug is that at the same time Amir is telling Meadows this story, he is telling a very different and more innocent, though just as violent, story in letters to the young woman he’s in love with, a hired girl named Jenny who fills in from time to time as a Jill-of-All-Trades in the captain’s house. For a while the narrative jumps back and forth between Meadows’ credulous account of his conversations with Amir and the story is telling Jenny in his letters, a story we can’t help suspecting is a self-serving lie, except that we have good reason to believe he may be lying to Meadows instead or as well.
Meanwhile, there’s a third narrator at work, a seemingly traditional omniscient third person narrator telling us about what’s happening outside the Captain’s house and club, in the streets, alleys, pubs, sewers, and opium dens of London’s demimonde. A trio of murderers is at work collecting skulls.
This narrator reveals himself early on as a youngish Indian scholar writing from the library of his late grandfather’s house, with all the books he’s going to be alluding to on the shelves behind him. The narrator is someone much like Khair and may or may not be Khair. He doesn’t tell us. He doesn’t tell us if he’s a real person or a fiction himself or if the story he’s telling, the one we’re reading, is a fiction or if within the fiction the narrator---if he is a fiction---inhabits it's a true story. All he admits is that he’s having some trouble with the period details and, consequently, there’s much he has to imagine and he’s struggling as he goes with how to handle that and with, essentially, how to tell this story. In short, we’re being told a story that, we’re told, is being made up and revised right before our eyes.
There’s a point here about the nature of stories and the purpose of storytelling that I’ll get to in a bit.
The leader of the murderers is John May, a “resurrection man”, as one of May’s literary precursors styles himself in Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities---body snatcher, to use Robert Louis Stevenson’s words---who has been making his living digging up fresh graves and selling the stolen corpses to medical students for study and practice. All of his customers aren’t doctors in training, however; his highest-paying client has been a brutal-minded nobleman who happens to be Meadows’ chief antagonist in the phrenological debates. John May has been providing Lord Batterstone with specimens for his collection. But Batterstone has grown dissatisfied with May’s wares. He’s looking for "things" more interesting and unusual than what Mays has been digging up. When you rob a grave, you have to take what you find. There are unusual specimens to be found all over London but they are riding around on top of still living bodies that don’t show any inclinations of walking into a grave any time soon.
May hits on a plan.
When the murders begin and headless corpses start turning up around London, the respectable citizens---that is, the white citizens---assume that that such horrific crimes could not be the work of any true-born Englishman, no matter how depraved. Of course not only do true-born Englishmen commit such crimes routinely, the Empire is based on even more horrific ones (Lord Batterstone’s collection of specimens ultimately recalls the spiked skulls fencing Kurtz’s compound in Heart of Darkness), but the populace and the police, goaded by the gutter press, look for suspects among the outsiders in their midst. And unfortunately for Amir, Captain Meadows has made him something of a celebrity. People know the story of the reformed thug and they immediately begin to doubt that he’s actually reformed.
Amir becomes the focus of the police’s investigation.
Fortunately for Amir, an unlikely detective appears on the scene and, with the help of her band of “irregulars”, sets out to solve the murders and prove Amir’s innocence.
That’s my word for them, “irregulars,” as in the Baker Street Irregulars and at this point I’m tempted to start making comparisons to The Sign of Four. But I think I’ve already over-emphasized the literary allusiveness of Khair’s novel. As I said, The Thing About Thugs isn’t an amusement for grad students or a pastiche, although Khair rather too helpfully names one of Amir’s friends Gunga and there’s a scene between the chief police inspector and one of his officers that turns into a heavy-handed joke at Arthur Conan Doyle’s expense. Khair acknowledges---or at any rate his narrative alter-ego does—his influences but he doesn’t bring them directly into his story, except in the case of Jane Austen, whom he cites as a source, as if Pride and Prejudice was a history text, for the sections of his book dealing with the social background against which Captain Meadows and his fiancee play out their courtship, which implies that all the other fictions that The Thing About Thugs recalls were for the author---or rather the narrator---sources as well, as if they’re textbooks too and The Thing About Thugs is itself a history, even though the narrator---or Khair---tells us he’s telling a story.
The thing about The Thing About Thugs is that in addition to being a meditation on storytelling and the the role of stories in creating and shaping individual identities, it’s also, I think, a reminder that national and cultural identities are created and shaped by the stories we tell each other. Khair isn’t simply writing a story that is like those other, classic stories. He’s writing a story that’s meant to be part of the larger story those stories are part of. He’s adding what was mostly kept offstage in the works of 19th Century authors, the fact that Victorian London was, because it was the center of an empire, an Asian city as much as a European one. The stories of Kipling and Conrad weren’t post cards from exotic and faraway climes. They were stories from home. We’re meant to see that there were people behind Amir and his friends as real and as British as the young women behind Oliver Twist’s Nancy, whose murder, by the way, is recapitulated in The Thing About Thugs.
There, I’ve overdone it some more.
The Thing About Thugs doesn’t come with a required reading list. You don’t have to have been an English major or do homework first in order to enjoy it.
All that I’ve said about those books that sit alongside and beneath and on top of and within and without The Thing About Thugs is true, but it’s still a story in its own right.
A story of murder, blood, body snatching, ghoulism, thuggery, and…revenge!