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The Damascened Blade: A Detective Joe Sandilands Mystery    by Barbara Cleverly order for
Damascened Blade
by Barbara Cleverly
Order:  USA  Can
Carroll & Graf, 2004 (2004)
Hardcover, Paperback, Audio
* * *   Reviewed by Nina de Angeli

Following in the literary footsteps of Rudyard Kipling, with a touch of Rudolph Valentino, Cleverly gives The Damascened Blade a powerful setting in the harsh mountains of the North-West Frontier of 1922 British India, near the Khyber Pass leading to Afghanistan. After the third Afghan War and the devastation of the Great War in Europe, peace is still shaky between the British Empire and the Afghan warlords. This book is the third in the series.

The frontier fort of Gor Khatri plays host to an odd assortment of visitors, disturbing the military routine of frontier surveillance. London detective Joe Sandilands, consultant to the Bengal police, is on leave visiting his wartime comrade James Lindsay, commander at the fort, when he takes on an assignment to escort a beautiful young American heiress visiting the area. Lily Coblenz annoys everyone by flouting rules and insisting on seeing what she conceives to be the real India. With her arrives the commander's pregnant wife Betty; a respected woman physician on her way to Afghanistan; a blustering British businessman with political connections; and two magnificent, British educated, Afghan warrior princes assigned to escort the physician through the Khyber pass. Gor Khatri translates as 'Warriors' Grave', and so it proves to be when one of the Afghan visitors, son of a powerful chieftain, turns up dead. Is it accidental food poisoning as the physician declares, or something more sinister? The Afghan code of honor demands vengeance but this could ignite another bloody war.

Sandilands and Lily form an unlikely and not very credible investigating alliance to search out the truth. Their work is interrupted by an unexpected sojourn in the victim's native village. The romanticized Afghans and Lily's Nancy Drewish Americanisms are less convincing than the British colonial characters, but the plot moves satisfyingly through many twists and turns. The prologue's intense description of three horrifying battle deaths of twelve years earlier contrasts with the veneer of British colonial gentility that sets the tone for the rest of the book. I recommend The Damascened Blade as a well-researched visit to a remote corner of the world that's much in the news these days.

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