A serial killer of great subtlety and near-infinite patience stalks Panikhat Station, an outpost of the British Raj located in the hinterland of Bengal. It’s March 1922, and Peggy Somersham, wife of a British officer, lies dead. Her assailant had gagged her, held her down as she lolled in a tub, and then slit her wrists. Called in to investigate is Joe Sandilands, a Scotland Yard detective who has come to Calcutta to deliver lectures on modern police procedure. He and his sleuthing cohorts—including the wife of the district Collector, a pert, smart flapper named Nancy Drummond, and Naurung, a native Indian deputy who offers his white masters the standard combination of wiliness, ambition, and loyalty—quickly discern that this murder is the fifth in a series that began in 1910. In each case, a memsahib (meaning, in this instance, a white woman) had suffered a horrible but seemingly nonhomicidal death during the month of March: One had fallen from a cliff while on horseback, one had succumbed to a cobra’s bite, one had drowned during a river crossing. Who could want all of these women to die, and who could want to eliminate them in such a methodical and long-range fashion?
Suspects in this adventure are few, and clues to a possible motive are even fewer. Cleverly, although she borrows many a prop from the Golden Age novel of detection, has little interest in setting forth a puzzle. Instead, she models her tale on those late-20th-century thrillers that pit a cunning psychopath against a hero or heroine who is adept at criminal profiling. (In one of the book’s many borderline anachronisms, she has Sandilands draw insight from his reading of Freud and Jung. Those titans of psychoanalysis had achieved some notoriety by the 1920s, to be sure, but how plausible is it that a British copper of that era would be conversant in their ideas?) The identity of the likely villain emerges early and becomes steadily more evident. And yet, just when it seems that Cleverly has no surprises in store, she delivers one that arrives with a decisive snap. Despite that welcome twist, the closing sequence of the novel drags on longer than it should, and a too-cute-by-half romantic subplot weighs down the story as a whole. Beyond that story, what remains in memory is the author’s evocation of a timeless India as it intersects with a British Empire whose time is now running out.