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THE DYING Day by Vaseem Khan: Book Review

Why would someone steal a priceless manuscript?  And how did they do it, housed as it was in the Special Collections room of the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, a monumental stone building constructed in 1804, with a guard on duty in the room that had no windows and only one door?

Persis Wadia, the first and so far the only female police inspector in Bombay in 1950, is sent to the Society after the Malabar House police station receives a call about a stolen book.  When she meets Neve Forrester, the Society’s president, she learns that the book in question is a copy of Dante Aligherieri’s La Divina Commedia, one of the two oldest copies in the world.  Priceless doesn’t even begin to explain its worth, Persis is told.  And not only is the manuscript missing, but so is the man who was examining it.

John Healy is a well-known English palaeographer, one who studies ancient writing systems and deciphers and dates historical manuscripts.  Neve tells Persis that John enlisted to fight in World War II, was captured by the Italians in North Africa, and spent a year in a prisoner of war camp.  After his return to England in 1947, three years before the book opens, he contacted the Society for permission to come to Bombay to examine Dante’s masterpiece for a new translation he was preparing.

The Society was delighted to accede to his request and named Healy their Curator of Manuscripts, a position he had held ever since he came to India.  Described as a workaholic, he arrived at the society at seven every morning, six days a week.  But when two days went by without a word from him, one of the Society’s librarians went into the strongroom to check on Dante’s book.  That’s when the Commedia was discovered to be missing, along with the palaeographer.

Persis is told that the book was kept in a special locked box that was returned to the librarian of the Special Collections when Healy left each night.  When Persis opens the box, inside it is a large volume wrapped in red silk.  But it’s a copy of the King James’ Bible rather than Dante’s magnum opus.  The librarian had not checked the closed box when Healy returned it.

Persis opens the Bible and reads an inscription on the flyleaf:  What’s in a name?  Akoloutheo Alethia.  The Society’s president translates the ancient Greek words as follow the truth, and Persis wonders what the first sentence has to do with the second and what Healy was trying to communicate with this brief message.

The Dying Day covers a lot of ground–feminism, World War II, Nazism, and man’s search for forgiveness, among other topics.  Although the novel takes place more than seventy years ago, these topics still resonate today.  Vaseem Khan has written an outstanding mystery, with a fascinating protagonist and a sense of place that brings mid-century India vividly to life.

You can read more about Vaseem Khan at this website.

Check out the complete Marilyn’s Mystery Reads at her website.  In addition to book review posts, there are sections featuring Golden OldiesPast Masters and Mistresses, and an About Marilyn column that features her opinions about everything to do with mystery novels.

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